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The Rise of Democracy 2.0: Five Reasons Why Web 2.0 Is Changing the Face of American Politics

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Message Dottie DeHart
When Barack Obama was sworn in as the country’s first African-American president, he was as different from his predecessor George W. Bush and his team of “old school” politicians as an iPhone is from a rotary dial telephone. And if you’re wondering how he did it, you’re not alone. Political experts around the world are asking the same question: How did a young U.S. Senator, called “inexperienced” by some and “too liberal” by others, convince so many Americans that he was the man who could lead the country through one of its most difficult times in history?

One of the keys to understanding President Obama’s stunning electoral victory, say authors Matthew Fraser and Soumitra Dutta, is his savvy mastery of Web 2.0 platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

“Obama wasn’t the only candidate to use Web 2.0 tools during the election campaign,” says Fraser, coauthor with Dutta of Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How Online Social Networking Will Transform Your Life, Work and World (Wiley, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-470-74014-9, $29.95). “But he was the only candidate to master it and use platforms like Facebook and YouTube to appeal to a new generation of Web-savvy voters. He is the first occupant of the White House to have won a presidential election on the Web.”

“It is clear that Obama knew exactly what he was doing and how to be successful at it,” adds Dutta. “He brought in a 24-year-old Facebook co-founder, who helped him develop his Web blitzkrieg. He left no Web 2.0 stone unturned, from social networking sites to podcasting to mobile messaging, and as a result he created an ‘e-ruption’ not only in American politics but throughout the world.”

In their groundbreaking book, the authors explore the connected new world that helped make Obama’s rise to the Oval Office possible. It is the first book written for a wide audience about the powerful trend that is reshaping our lives: the Web 2.0 social networking revolution. The authors examine the powerful forces behind the social e-revolution, detailing often absurd and powerful reactions to it as well as making predictions about its long-term consequences. (In case you’re wondering, the book takes its title from a popular Facebook widget, sheep-throwing, which serves as one of many ways members playfully interact with their online friends.)

“The 2008 election campaign marks a rupture with the past not only because the Web was used by candidates to mobilize voters and raise money, but more importantly because the Web became a platform for spontaneous citizen engagement in the political process,” says Fraser.

“The sites and Web communities themselves also got involved. The ‘Yes We Can’ video on YouTube was not made by the Obama campaign, but by hip hop star who produced it and uploaded it onto the Web. The video quickly went viral, and before Obama won the election, it had been viewed 20 million times. These powerful Democracy 2.0 tools are transforming politics and may soon bring profound changes to the way governments interact with citizens. A new era of e-democracy and e-government is dawning.”

Reader’s Digest dubbed the 2008 presidential election the “Facebook Election” due to voter mobilization by all the candidates on that social networking site. During the election, Facebook launched its own political forum to encourage online debates about voter issues. In what might be an indicator of how new and old media will work together in the future, Facebook teamed up with ABC News for election coverage and forums, and CNN teamed up with YouTube to hold presidential debates.

So, what’s the reason for the Web 2.0 “e-ruption” into politics?

“In modern democracies, it’s very hard for common, everyday citizens to make themselves heard, unless large groups of them take to the streets,” says Dutta. “In the book we suggest what we saw with the recent election might be an indicator that the Internet, and specifically social networking sites, will make the emergence of a new citizen-empowered Democracy 2.0 possible. To be heard, all you’ll need is an online presence, and today that is easier than ever to create.”

If you’re reluctant to believe that the times are changing all that fast, here’s a look at how and why social networking will change the business of American politics. Five Reasons Why Web 2.0 Is Changing the Face of American Politics

1. It allows candidates to skip the media. The two presidential candidates received their fair share of positive and negative coverage from the media. But when it came to getting out the exact message he wanted, Obama didn’t have to rely on the mainstream media. He had 2 million supporters on Facebook to John McCain’s 600,000 that he could easily reach with updates to his page, and 112,000 supporters on Twitter to McCain’s 4,600, not to mention the extensive direct e-mail list of supporters who received daily updates from the big players in his campaign including his wife, Michelle Obama. Obama’s YouTube channel attracted more than 18 million visits, while McCain’s channel attracted barely more than 2 million.

“Sites like YouTube allowed Obama to reach people in a way that he would never have been able to achieve solely through media coverage,” says Fraser.

2. It’s cheap and cost-effective. In Democracy 2.0, political candidates can reach more people with less money. Take Obama’s online advertising spending, for example. His campaign spent less than $8 million on online spending, much of which went to adwords by Google. The campaign also spent $467,000 on Facebook. What about TV advertising? Those numbers are a little bigger. It was widely reported that the half-hour TV special that aired in the final week of the election cost $4 million, but according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, the Obama campaign spent a whopping $235,974,838 on broadcasting TV ads. While both his online campaign and TV ad campaign were crucial to his getting elected, there’s no denying that you can make your dollars go a little farther online, a fact that opens up the political game to many more players.

The Web is low-cost but high-reach, which makes it a great tool for campaigning. The Pew Research Center found that 46 percent of Americans used the Web, e-mail, or text messaging for news about the presidential campaign, to contribute to the debate, or to mobilize others. Some 35 percent of Americans said they’d watched online political videos—three times more than during the 2004 presidential election (before YouTube was created). And roughly 10 percent said they’d logged on to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to engage in the election.

“Web 2.0 seems to be an attractive way for people to get involved with what’s going on politically, and it’s cheap enough that you don’t have to have millions or billions of dollars if you want to use it to make a name for yourself in the political world,” says Dutta. “Web 2.0 could very well be the platform that reinvigorates political debate, fosters civic engagement, and allows grassroots movements outside the political duopoly of Democrats and Republicans to gain in popularity.”

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