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Adam C. Nisbet CCTP-803 Georgetown University
A case study on the creators of DC for Obama
TABLE OF CONTENTS 1. INTRODUCTION 2. BACKGROUND 3. PROBLEM 4. IMPORTANCE OF RESEARCH 5. QUESTIONS 6. METHODOLOGY 7. INTERVIEW 8. USES AND GRATIFICATIONS 9. SUSTAINABILITY 10. CONCLUSION 11. REFERENCES
Discerning the media effects of online messaging on an individuals¶ likelihood to participate in the political process has been the subject of much debate in recent years, and many theorists have asked to what extent the Internet truly plays a role in a citizens¶ relation to political activity and civic engagement. Joe Trippi has said ³the Internet is the most democratizing innovation we¶ve ever seen, more so even than the printing press (2005, 235)(Hindman, 2).´ However, other scholars such as Hindman have provided technical data that supports the notion of a ³Googlearchy´ of political content online, a pyramidal-type link structure that shows little evidence of the Internet progressing political dialog to the lofty academic ideal of increased democratic deliberation (Hindman, 38).
Scholars have been pulling for information regarding what influences audience members decisions when choosing media based on uses and gratifications since the 2
1940¶s (Katz, 509). Whether it is discerning a passive audience from an active audience or examining an audience member¶s needs, desires, and expectations in receiving a certain type of media, the uses and gratifications model, at least, provides a framework to evaluate specific decisions made toward political communication strategy. However, much of the recent research on uses and gratifications concerning Internet uses intends to measure the amount or quality of political information collected through online sites and lacks detection of modes that intend to increase actual political participation, whether online or offline. While Internet political uses may have evolved during the 2008 election it has been documented since the 2000 election that ³online news consumption continues to be far from a dominant factor in campaign communication (Farnsworth, Owen, 1).´ This evidence has led many political scientists to question the efficacy of the Internet to produce advances for democratic communication and the spread of political information.
Could there be the possibility that some important communication modes have been overlooked in popular scholarship? Several scholars have been doing research on Internet participation outside the modes of social media, instead focusing on the coordination and building of an online movement. Dave Karpf¶s research focuses on the immense power harnessed by a well managed email list such as with Moveon.org, which has become the single largest interest group in America (Karpf, 2).
³MoveOn¶s e-mail based action appeals moved well beyond the e-petition the organization had been founded around. Through exhaustive message-testing and the development of several innovative campaign tools, MoveOn developed a
capacity for generating millions in small-dollar contributions, launching online and offline oppositional tactics to the latest Bush Administration efforts, and continually building a larger and larger list of occasional-to-frequent leftwing political participants (Karpf, 11).´
There is no doubt that the management of an online membership list is one of the key factors that help build a strong political movement online but can that same communication structure yield real-life political participation such as canvassing or even possibly provide increases in civic engagement?
This study seeks to find what potential effects exist when analyzing an online coordinated political movement and if those effects are only limited in scope. Although the content creation and online activity may be from only a few opinion leaders, they do influence others surrounding them within the network, online and in real life, which allows them to be effective participants. Through means such as online social trust these enablers may be able to create network connections and social incentives which may not have occurred in previous elections. This study will seek to characterize a new media users¶ political socialization by analyzing evidence presented in an interview with a content creator and campaign organizer during the 2008 campaign and see whether political participation could be carried over to participation in post-election civic engagement. If an organization were able to sustain participation after a partisan election then the mode of communication may provide answers to what we have sought as the primary source for signs of political engagement through online means.
2. BACKGROUND: 4
DCforObama is a political organization formed in early 2007 in Washington, D.C. with the goal of supporting Barack Obama¶s presidential campaign through volunteer activities in primary states across the nation and as well as throughout the general election. Many of the participants were first time volunteers in the political process, while many were young or in college, the age range was very broad and the group was incredibly diverse. During the period from October 2007 to November 2008 the author observed this organization and their communication implementation. Adam L. Barr is the founder of D.C. for Obama and the primary strategist behind this online movements¶ communication plan.
Based on technical data related to Internet search queries and link structure some theorists have made predictions that political dialog and political engagement online is minimal with limited benefits for political deliberation online. Many argue that high profile bloggers and content creators only represent a new breed of media elites and that the Internet lacks the capacity to bring new advancements to political socialization. Many of these studies lack attention to single issue websites, established purely for the purpose of a grass-roots network or even a high profile campaign. Much of the political activity coordinated online was not done through media websites or blog sites but rather through sites such as my.bo.com or dcforobama.com.
4. IMPORTANCE OF RESEARCH:
This project will explore the possible media effects which may originate within the realms of social trust established by the content creators and their perceived selfefficacy. By characterizing the content creators¶ motivations through interviews we may be able to better understand the reach of their political involvement and their effects on voting efficacy, effects on becoming involved in the political process, and ability to sustain engagement, after election into civic life and community volunteering. To study the effects, it is easiest to study the usages and behaviors of the group that adapted and promulgated this activity through the ground breaking election of Barack Obama.
While many scholars are still puzzled about what happened during the 2008 election, this study will analyze the political uses of social media by this generation for the purposes of political communication and campaign coordination. Participants are an engaged audience in this type of communication and because of virtual engagement may establish communal trust.
5. QUESTIONS: A few of the questions that were addressed in the interview with Adam Barr included: Does there appear to be distinct evidence for the political socialization of young people through new media? Are there further opportunities? What values does it propose? Has there been a measurable drop off of DCforObama supporters since the election or has the momentum carried over into civic engagement? Does the use of new media involvement provide only short term benefits to the Democratic process? Who are the content creators? What gratifications does it present for the audience?
6. METHODOLOGY: 6
This study will seek to compile an account of this electoral group¶s socialization into politics through Internet participation. Interview Adam L. Barr founder of DC for Obama and the main content creator and promoter of this movement will discuss his involvement and his strategy for developing communication tools for a very effective grassroots campaign. Adam will also describe changes, good or bad, to his support group/organization after the election when the political organization was converted into a civic engagement organization know as Organizing for America. Mr. Barr's program has been working to improve a specific elementary school in Washington, DC; the Tubman School. This study will examine his experience with using new media as a way to bring people into the fold for political activity and later for civic engagement.
The origins of the DCforObama group happened shortly after the announcement on Feb. 17; Obama said go online, get involved. Adam Barr followed this advice and became involved; he had been the administrator on several listserves in the past but never with anything political. He decided this would be a great step to become involved in the political process and help a candidate he believed in. He felt that he understood the ³do¶s and don¶ts´ of listserve management. He said he believed the role of admin was to moderate rather than to send numerous messages or communication modes. His communication program was highly effective and successful by the numbers alone, but there is certainly something here that can give hints on the formulations of a political movement online. After one month they had grown to only 300 members, but it was
still very early with nearly a year to go till the election. Early decisions in the structuration of the communication model would provide enormous returns later on.
The first goal of the group was to recruit and build up a membership list. By this time Adam Barr was the administer for the entire group by the end of Feb. 2007 at which point he had been in communication with several of the consultants from Blue State Digital, the firm that built Facebook, who had begun working for the Obama team. Barr stated that at no time did he work for the campaign, or within close coordination with the campaign, and that the DCforObama campaign was an entirely organic citizen established movement. As we will see documented here, DCforObama may be an entirely new form of campaigning mixed with citizen involvement. Among other things the utility of the web and social media platforms gave this organization an advanced ability to connect with people in close proximity, within DC. Could we be seeing the advent of the ³open-source´ campaign, where citizens actually own and control part of the campaign? A group of individuals, within close proximity, described by the title ³DCforObama´ as opposed to a state-wide organization that may span 100¶s of miles, this group was effective, although they had the clear advantage of being from such a politically concentrated area such as Washington, D.C.
³When considering the audiences motivations and desires, their goals in participating, it¶s easy to see that it is because they liked Obama, they went to the website and did a few possible things either read content, watched videos, made a contribution, or possibly searched for ways to volunteer ± this was the launch hub for the majority of members and the second form being through
personal referrals or forwarded emails. Our model was based on organic growth, word-of-mouth, buzz, and personal referrals ± we focused on being simple, websavvy, and had to do very little recruitment work at all ± we just let the list build itself (Barr).´ In the early stages, we were only online for a few months until we had to establish real life meetings to coordinate events, establish long-term goals of the group, and a communication program. We quickly absorbed other groups that were smaller than ours, and our primary goal was to form a movement not just an email list or a discussion board, but to get people involved in real-life participation (Barr).´
The group was also entirely autonomous to the campaign and did all of their own fundraising for trips and events. Therefore, this group was actually running their own campaign parallel but entirely separate from the Obama organization; Barr stated that the Obama team would not share email addresses with their group, so they relied on all their own systems and functionalities to retain information.
With every event the group would become larger and would establish a greater sense of communal trust and effectiveness. At first, fundraisers were not that rewarding but over time they began to gain the trust of the community and could show that their proceeds would make a huge impact through this viable political organization. The organizations¶ first bus trip was to South Carolina, and these consecutive trips would be the primary events that built excitement for involvement and direct increases in membership. After the first bus trip the group¶s total membership jumped up to 900 and this helped the group raise more funds and pay for other bus trips. It is important to
note also, that their entire fundraising solicitation program was administered online as well with an online check system.
They would fund 4 buses for their next trip and while Barr said the most difficult task was being able to consider how many people would actually attend when they RSVP¶d for the bus trip and who would actually show up, their membership jumped to 1300 members soon after. Barr stated that the success of this communication strategy was that it didn¶t actually rely too heavily on an anchor website but built satellite hubs on nearly every social media website they could find including Twitter, Meetup, My.bo, Facebook, Myspace, and nearly any other they could find. They found that discussion in these areas was not productive and that people would rather receive a direct email with simple yet explicit instructions on how to get involved. In this manner, the email listserve became the most effective mode for establishing an effective communication program.
By this time the email list had gotten so large the administration of the messages and communications became more advanced to try to better anticipate the number of individuals who would show up for events and be involved. Obviously, by offering free bus trips to individuals who wanted to have an impact as a volunteer in the campaign and travel to battleground primary states there was tons of enthusiasm for participation. By the time the Ohio primary had come around DCforObama was able to send 5 buses at a time for a weekend to Columbus, Ohio, and by the end of that primary had knocked on nearly 100,000 doors in support for Obama. Each time DCforObama held a bus trip event they would have twice as many people sign up for the next trip and half of those
numbers were new members. The way in which this organization grew displays a certain amount of buzz propulsion considering that members who enjoyed their experience would forward the membership emails to friends to join on the next bus trip.
8. USES AND GRATIFICATIONS:
When membership grew DCforObama began using methods of gauging the likelihood of participation such as SurveyMonkey.com. From the beginning of establishing the communication plan the group admin¶s found that Facebook was not all that useful for many reasons. First, they found that Facebook distanced their message from the audience because many people have different settings and different usage modes for that application making it difficult to reach your audience quickly and effectively with precise information. Second, they found that there was very little discussion taking place on Facebook as far as discussion boards and un-moderated forums. Barr mentioned that people first go to the main campaign site first for Barack Obama, then to the My.Bo.com portal, users would visit this site and then sign up to volunteer or make a donation and never return ± often waiting for the campaign to contact them ± but traditionally this would be a slow process. DCforObama recognized this and was quick to respond to volunteer requests by activating members with instant communication which met the needs of the volunteers to become further involved and effective. Barr stated that Obama¶s website was utilized very effectively in driving traffic because the site was constantly providing new content which would cause repeat visits to the site. However, Barr said that the stand-alone site, such as DCforObama.com, is only the activator and after the audience member has visited the site the organization
must take steps to activate and engage them. He stated that growing a movement online is very comparable to the motivations and goals of driving traffic, and web savvy administrators understand that messages must be simple and clear, and that you cannot provide too much communication or your message system will become ineffective.
When asked if he thought his strategy was different than traditional modes of web campaigning Barr¶s answer was yes. Barr added that this multi-platform strategy obviously could not have existed in the 2004 election. He noted that he was surprised that discussion never took off on Facebook, which would support Hindman¶s argument that there is little opportunity for political discourse online. But Barr understood that activating citizens into the process you have to get emails directly into their inboxes and you need to have volunteer profile information such as addresses, phone numbers, and affiliations. Basically, Facebook was not a tool that could be used to primarily organize a political organization, and DCforObama was out to form a movement broader than one social media platform.
³Once the election season had swung into full gear and Obama was the clear nominee the list nearly doubled in a few short days from 3000 to 4500 and then 7000 members. There were over 900 new members in March alone (Barr).´ By this time, Barr knew that the organization had achieved the movement status and that it was necessary to provide clear goals for the group to try to meet an expanding sense of obligation to the membership. At each point he would provide solid numbers of what they wanted to achieve weather it were fundraising goals or numbers 12
of houses to be contacted. This was a benchmark moment for this independently ran organization because they were now outperforming the Obama campaign offices in Virginia, DC, and parts of Maryland. All of these achievements happened with little to no contact with the Obama campaign for advice or direction. Barr also stated that he
believe nearly half of the participants in DCforObama¶s events had never participated in the political process before as far as volunteering and canvassing for a candidate. That is a clear indicator that Internet use was essential to increasing numbers of citizens involved in the political process.
In short, the achievements of the DCforObama organization are phenomenal when it comes to organizing a citizen¶s movement through online communication, however, to measure the effectiveness it may be asked if that level of participation could be sustained after an election. Levels of political participation certainly vacillate depending on the election season and when there is a presidential election there is usually much more attention and involvement. What is very noteworthy about the DCforObama communications program is that it was soon converted into a civic engagement program, with the same type of infrastructure, used to aid a public school in Washington, D.C. Barr stated that he did not simply convert the membership list from DCforObama but instead asked for member¶s involvement. By applying the same infrastructure from DCforObama to the Tubman elementary school project and doing the same type of canvassing and volunteer recruitment, Barr was able to take a
primarily Internet formed group from a campaign movement to civic engagement movement.
This transition provides a fascinating view inside the goals and motivations of applying an Internet communications program to get people further involved in their community. Barr knew that if the service project was important enough to the members they would be in and he believed that momentum from the campaign certainly boosted his membership for the civic engagement program which has been kept entirely separate from any political leanings. He has implemented the same canvassing strategy to gain volunteers and donations for improvement of the Tubman elementary school and he said that half of the membership roster in the civic group came from DCforObama and the other half are new members. This community service project, built on the same communication infrastructure and strategy as DCforObama, now has over 900 online members involved. The service projects that they have brought to the school include arts education, reading initiatives, green initiatives, tutoring services, site clean-up, school supplies, and much more. This strategy also uses a broad range of events to stimulate communal trust and activate the online membership.
10. CONCLUSION Therefore, it seems that the primary mode for activating individuals into the political process, as participants, through online means is through direct contact with a clear message sent through email. Once a participant has ³signed up´ the campaign has gained a new recruit and must provide information to quickly activate that individual into real-life participation. It seems that in this fashion volunteers prefer a quick and
concise message about how to become involved and what steps to take, the easier for the participant the more effective the message will be. This coincides with a theory that Katz and Blumler¶s present of an audience digesting media in a passive manner, as if they want to become involved but don¶t want to have to do the research to book the trip themselves (Katz et al, 510). In many cases, the best that a volunteer can do it seems is show up. Internet technology, such as new media, can only build a bridge between the campaign and the participant and provide ease of use to further facilitate the needs of the campaign. It is illegitimate to believe new media could create its own outcomes for increased political dialog online or greater diversity in ideas inasmuch, a democratization of political content. However, the Internet is effective as a tool for increasing political participation when used across different platforms to cull membership information to create direct contact with likely participants; most likely through email. By documenting the strategic decisions made by DCforObama and profiling their mode of communication operations we may better understand if this is a true democratic movement carried out entirely online.
While scholars such as Hindman lambaste the Internet as a tool for the advancement of democratic dialog this study attempted to analyze the uses and gratifications, why people used new media or the Internet to receive political communications, and if they feel it has had a long-term effect on their political engagement. Although political discussion and even search queries for political related news stories are only a small fraction of Internet use there is something vastly important about what is taking place there and about how political information is being spread. It 15
seems that buzz and word-of-mouth referrals are just as important for online recruitment and this evidence leads us back to the relevance of online social trust, or ³virtual trust´ (Gibson, 6). It appears that an effective communication strategy to increase political participation in a movement through online media would not only be to recruit an enormous membership list but to be able to activate that membership towards clear goals in real-life participatory events. To do so, a campaign organizer must understand the needs and desires of their participants to receive simple and direct email messages that lead to quick activation into the political process, satisfying the individuals¶ motivations to become involved in a communal collaboration involving social trust.
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