July 7, 2008

From Facebook to MyBo

By Brian Stelter

Last November, Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's former campaign strategist, derisively said that Barack Obama's supporters "look like Facebook."

Chris Hughes takes that as a compliment. Hughes, 24, was one of four founders of Facebook. In early 2007, he left the company to work in Chicago on Obama's new-media campaign. Leaving behind his company at such a critical time would appear to require some cognitive dissonance: political campaigns, after all, are built on handshakes and persuasion, not computer servers, and Hughes has watched, sometimes ruefully, as Facebook has marketed new products that he helped develop.

"It was overwhelming for the first two months," he recalled. "It took a while to get my bearings."

But in fact, working on the Obama campaign may have moved Hughes closer to the center of the social networking phenomenon, not farther away.

The Obama campaign's new-media strategy, inspired by popular social networks like MySpace and Facebook, has revolutionized the use of the Web as a political tool, helping the candidate raise more than two million donations of less than $200 each and swiftly mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporters.

The new-media strategy's centerpiece is MyBarackObama.com, where supporters can join local groups, create events, sign up for updates and set up personal fund-raising pages. "If we did not have online organizing tools, it would be much harder to be where we are now," Hughes said.

Obama credits the Internet's social networking tools with a big part of his winning primaries and caucuses for the Democratic nomination for president.

"One of my fundamental beliefs from my days as a community organizer is that real change comes from the bottom up," Obama said in a statement. "And there's no more powerful tool for grassroots organizing than the Internet."

Now Hughes and other campaign aides are applying the same social networking tools to try to win the general election. This time, however, they must reach beyond their core base of young, Internet- savvy supporters.

By early April, Obama's new-media staffers were already planning for the election by expanding their online phone-calling technology. In mid-May, to keep volunteers busy as the primaries played out, the campaign started a nationwide voter registration drive. And in late June, after Clinton ended her candidacy, the millions of people on the Obama campaign's e-mail lists were asked to rally her supporters as well as undecided voters by holding Unite for Change house parties across the country. Nearly 4,000 parties were held.

The campaign's successful new-media strategy is already being studied by other candidates' staffs, including that of John McCain, the presumed Republican presidential nominee.

"Their use of social networks will guide the way for future campaigns," Peter Daou, Clinton's Internet director, said at a recent political technology conference. Daou called Obama's online outreach "amazing."

The heart of the campaign's online strategy is a teeming corner of Obama's headquarters in Chicago, a crowded space that looks more like an Internet start-up than a campaign war room.

Sitting amid a cluster of cubicles, Hughes, whose title is online organizing guru, handles the MyBarackObama.com site, which is known within the campaign as MyBo. Other staff members maintain Obama's presence on Facebook, purchase online advertising, respond to text messages from curious voters, produce videos, and send e-mail messages to millions of supporters.

Before helping to build Facebook, the social network of choice for 70 million Americans, the fresh-faced and sandy-haired Hughes, who grew up in Hickory, North Carolina, went to boarding school at Andover, where he self-identified as a "political dork" and joined the Democratic Club and the student government. In the autumn of 2002 he went to Harvard, where he majored in history and literature. He and a roommate, Mark Zuckerberg - now the chief executive of Facebook - shared a room that was "just about as small as my cubby at work is these days," Hughes said.

Zuckerberg and another Facebook co-founder dropped out of college in 2004 to work on the site full-time, but Hughes graduated in 2006 before venturing to Silicon Valley.

In February 2007, after showing interest in Obama's candidacy and being assured that the campaign's new-media operation would be more than "just a couple Internet guys in a corner," he left Facebook, where he has tens of millions of dollars in potential stock options, and moved to Chicago.

As supporters started to join MyBo in early 2007, Hughes brought in a growth strategy, borrowed from Facebook's founding principles: keep it real and keep it local. Hughes wanted Obama's social network to mirror the off-line world the same way that Facebook seeks to, because supporters would foster more meaningful connections by attending neighborhood meetings and calling on people who were part of their daily lives. The Internet served as the connective tissue.

While many candidates reach their supporters through the Web, the social networking features of MyBo allow supporters to reach one another.

Hughes's abrupt shift from Facebook pioneer to campaign aide was not easy. In the lonely months before the Iowa caucus, he grappled with the small scale of his new social network, measuring its membership by the thousands rather than the millions he was accustomed to. He had to learn a slew of political terms and figure out how campaigns operate. Eventually, he grew comfortable.

At first, his main focus was a single state. Throughout last summer and autumn, the prevailing attitude was, "What can you do for Iowa today?" Hughes recalled.

Obama's victory in the Iowa caucuses drove new supporters to the MyBo site in droves. Using the campaign's online toolkit, freshly energized volunteers laid the groundwork for field workers.

So far, MyBo has attracted 900,000 members, although aides play down the raw numbers.

"The point is not to have a million people" signed up, said Joe Rospars, the campaign's new-media director, although he does expect to have well over a million signed up on MyBo by the election in November. "The point is to be able to chop up that million-person list into manageable chunks and organize them."

In some primary and caucus states, volunteers used the Internet to start organizing months before the campaign staff arrived. In Texas on March 4, Clinton won the popular vote, but Obama came away with a lead of five delegates, thanks to a caucus victory.

Caucuses are a test of organizational strength, and Obama's team used database technology to track 100,000 Texas volunteers and put them to work. The tools permitted campaign staffers to "skip steps 1, 2 and 3," Hughes said.

Virtual phone banks greatly benefited Obama. During the primaries, users could log on, receive a list of phone numbers, and make calls from home. Hundreds of thousands of calls were made last winter and spring; now the campaign is refining its techniques and automating the process for the presidential election.

At the end of June, the Obama campaign began opening up its files of voters to online supporters, making it easier to find out which Democratic-leaning neighbors to call and which doors of independent voters to knock on.

The tools are meant to drive online energy into in-person support. From January to April, for instance, the Obama campaign spent $3 million on online advertising to steer voters to their precincts through polling place locators - online look-up tools that tell people where to go to vote. The locators "are hard to build, but once you build them, they have a very high return on investment," Hughes said.

Much of the technology in the Obama toolbox was piloted by Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign.

Rospars and other former Dean staffers formed a consulting firm, Blue State Digital, to refine their techniques. The Obama campaign purchased the backbone of MyBo from Blue State and has set out to improve it. "It's still very, very rough around the edges," he said.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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