Can Barack Obama adapt his Web site the White House?

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Nov. 10 2008 5:23 PM

You Are Now Friends With Barack Obama

Will the White House Web site work as a social network?

change.gov

Barack Obama ran the most technologically sophisticated presidential campaign in history. In addition to siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars from his online fans, Obama's team recognized the Internet's capacity to attract and organize volunteers across the country. His bloggy, YouTube-addled supporters helped shape the larger media narrative surrounding his bid; they overwhelmed social news sites like Digg and Reddit, trumpeting McCain or Clinton missteps into blogospherewide news. Most important, Obama relied on the Web's social-networking capabilities to channel boundless enthusiasm into effective campaign activity. His site encouraged supporters to connect with one another to launch their own voter-registration drives, phone banks, and door-to-door canvassing operations—efforts that proved pivotal to Obama's victory in the primaries and in last week's general election.

But the campaign's over. What will become of this new Web network now that candidate Obama has become President Obama?

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Though no one in the Obama camp will discuss the specifics, Democratic Web guru Joe Trippi and others believe that the White House Web site will transform into a social network—a kind of Facebook for citizens, a place where people can learn about and work toward passing the president's agenda. Trippi argues that if Obama can use the Web to spark the same well-organized fervor for his policy goals as he did for his campaign, "I think it's going to be one of the most powerful presidencies we've seen since FDR, and maybe even more powerful. Even the best presidents have never had a way to connect directly with millions of Americans—Obama will have that."

That, anyway, is the dream. In reality, President Obama faces a bunch of challenges in transitioning his Web network from a campaign tool into a force for passing legislation. Campaign finance rules likely prohibit him from running My.BarackObama.com, his sprawling social network, out of the White House. Instead, he'll need to build a new noncampaign site and ask the country to join it. (It's unclear whether the site will be hosted on the main White House domain—Whitehouse.gov—or at some other dedicated address, like the transition site Change.gov.) If he does so, tens of millions of people would probably heed his call.

The key, of course, is what happens after everybody signs up—we've all registered for social networks before and done nothing more useful on them than SuperPoke! Obama's challenge is to make his online presence exciting, to get users as fired up to pass his tax or health care policies as they were about getting him to the White House. This will be difficult; online communities are fragile, tenuous associations, and Obama's Web coalition—millions of people with various competing interests—could very well splinter when tasked with working toward specific policy goals. It's easy to make a viral video in support of a vague, unobjectionable notion like "change." Will.i.am and Scarlett Johansson might have a tougher time coming up with a catchy ditty in support of expanding the mortgage interest tax credit.

During the campaign, Obama often discussed his plans to use the Web to reconnect Americans to their government. For instance, he wants to let people post comments on pending legislation. He'll also put up detailed information about what the White House is doing each day, as well as specific ways for Americans to get involved: Call this congressman, help get the bill through that committee, fight this lobbying group. Thomas Gensemer, a managing partner at Blue State Digital—the political consulting firm that helped build Obama's online campaign operations and Change.gov—points out that these initiatives go far beyond what you can do on President Bush's Web site. In addition to some fascinating virtual tours, today's Whitehouse.gov offers the opportunity to sign up for a weekly e-mail newsletter about the administration's activities—and that's about the only interaction you get with the president.

A more engaging site, Gensemer says, will help Obama cultivate groups of "superactivists"—the tens of thousands of especially motivated people who, during the campaign, took time off from work and relocated to other states in order to volunteer full-time. Let's imagine that Obama's ambitious health care plan runs into trouble in Congress. The social network might help him identify the few hundred or few thousand health care activists in key congressional districts who agree with his proposals. In the same way that Facebook lets you plan a lavish birthday dinner for yourself, the White House Web site would let activists hold gatherings to lobby their legislators on Obama's behalf. "If a congressman goes home and sees a town hall meeting with 1,000 people in their district, that matters," Gensemer says.