David Weinberger on Obama

It’s early October and I’m speaking to David Weinberger over Skype between London and Boston. With just a month to go between one of the more exciting US presidential elections in living memory, I’m interested to know what David thinks of Barack Obama’s leadership style and, in particular, Obama’s use of the web.

“If Obama wins, we’ll be looking back on this as the ‘Internet election’,” says David. “There’s a very good chance he will win because of the new voter registration and the ground organisation that he’s done to get people out to vote…if he does win, this will be the election that the Internet won.

“Obama is a really interesting case study…it’s this mix of top down and rigorous control of the message. On one hand, very traditional. The same press secretaries, the same small set of people who are allowed to speak on behalf of the candidate. Still driven from the top.

“And you still have a leader who speaks in elevated rhetoric. In my view, he speaks magnificently and not in the folksy, common way of the Internet. In that respect, Sarah Palin speaks much more like a regular human being…but many people are happily deferring to Obama’s rhetoric.

“At the same time you have a campaign that is setting up social networks for its users and engaging in the existing social networks.”

Yes, the online network is interesting. I remember reading an article in Time a few months ago which mentioned Obama’s fund-raising. It seems he’s essentially used long-tail economics to raise funds. A sidebar to the Time article noted that Obama raised over 1m in small (eg $10) donations, matching and eventually over-taking the amount raised by Clinton from her much smalller pool of wealthy funders. This, according to the article, was why he won the democratic nomination.

I mention this to David and he points out an additional strategy developed by the Obama campaign – involving the setting up of matching funds:

“The Obama campaign lets anyone set up a matching fund, so you can offer 100 dollars and the campaign will find two or more people to match it. So these people get to feel that they’re doubling their money.

“This is unique in itself, but the neater thing about it is that you can choose to publish an email address and a message to the people who are matching your money, and then you end up in conversation with other supporters – you’re donating, they’re donating – you thank each other . It’s a very direct connection. It’s very Cluetrain-like and I think it’s actually sort of thrilling.”

The Internet Election, eh? We’ll keep our fingers crossed!