If Phillip Lamb's experience is any indication, the ability to leverage online social networking tools to organize campaigns may help make or break candidates in the 2008 U.S. presidential race.
Lamb, a New York software architect with new media and Internet strategy company EchoDitto, was just another volunteer looking for a few good open-source software developers to help him build tools for Illinois Senator Barack Obama's campaign Web site.
Using the site's social networking page, he posted his request for a "Hack for Barack" event to have developers meet and discuss how they could build mashups, APIs (application programming interfaces) and other tools to help with the Democratic senator's grassroots movement.
"Six hours later, 30 people had signed up, and some of them just wanted to volunteer to help with the campaign, so I changed the nature of the event," Lamb said. Within 48 hours, so many people were signing up for the event that it crashed the Web site, and Lamb had to cap the event at 200 official attendees on the site.
Five days after posting his request, about 250 people met at the GalleryBar in Manhattan's Lower East Side neighborhood for the meeting Lamb and other volunteers had arranged on My.BarackObama.com.
Lamb walked away with about 150 names of people who not only may be able to help with Web site development, but who are interested in helping Obama in his presidential campaign, he said. Lamb also volunteered to develop the New York site that will be the online hub of local efforts for Obama.
Learning From the Past
EchoDitto's Lamb has been building Web-based community sites for about a year and a half, and he served as an assistant deputy field director for strategic targeting on Wesley Clark's 2004 campaign. These made him a good fit for EchoDitto when he joined four months ago, as former EchoDitto CEO Nicco Mele was the Web master for Howard Dean's online presence during his 2004 presidential campaign.
Before Dean's campaign fizzled out after his now-famous scream when he came in third in the Iowa caucuses, the success of his campaign was largely attributed to his ability to drum up support online. Such support will be more pivotal in 2008, as social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.com are much more popular now than in 2004, when they were in their nascent stages, Lamb said.
"The technology has grown so much and a lot of people now know about it and they're comfortable using it," he said.
Jeff Merritt, president of Grassroots Initiative, a nonprofit organization that helps first-time candidates in New York with their campaigns, agreed that social networking sites have changed the game for candidates in political races of all sizes and importance.
"It used to be you stuck with direct mail, phone banking and door-to-door canvassing," he said. "Now it's clear you get more bang for your buck if you take advantage of pre-established networks, and tap into online networks that are usually free."
Merritt added that his organization consults clients on how to drum up support through MySpace and Facebook in addition to traditional means of campaigning.
New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and former senator and 2004 vice presidential candidate John Edwards also have tapped into online social networking in their quests to become the Democratic candidate in 2008, as have Republicans Arizona Senator John McCain, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Kansas Senator Sam Brownback. All of their sites have links to join up with other supporters, as well as links for planning events and making donations. Some of the sites have blogs, and McCain's offers videos.
While these efforts certainly should help candidates "generate buzz," Grassroots Initiative's Merritt warned that a popular online presence alone certainly does not guarantee a candidate's success, a lesson Dean supporters learned the hard way.
"I think the concern is that Dean did lots of social networking activity and young people were turning out, but that didn't translate into his electability," he said.
To avoid this gaffe in 2008, candidates should ensure they stress to young voters that they must cast their votes at the polls in the same numbers in which they appear at campaign social gatherings and on social-networking sites, Merritt said.