Obama: The Candidate For All Platforms

Whew! I am still trying to collect my thoughts after the Obama victory last week, which has come during a particularly hectic period of the term for me. I haven't been able to keep pace with the journalists and professional pundits who have already written much of what I might have had to say, but I did promise you folks a few reflections. I've been traveling around the country in recent weeks, giving talks on the relationships between politics and participatory culture. A key theme of the talks has been that political campaigns, much like wars, pushing existing technologies to their breaking points and often give rise to innovations and experimentations which have a lasting impact on our mediascape. This has certainly been the case this go around where Obama has been the man for all platforms -- a campaign which was as comfortable on YouTube or Second Life as it was on network television (think about that final informercial, for example) and more importantly, understood the political process through a lens of media convergence, seeing old and new media, grassroots and corporate media working hand in hand to shape his public image and the campaign messages. The Obama campaign broke so much new ground (in the use of user-generated content, social networks, mobile technologies, and game-based advertising, in particular) and set new records (in the use of the web to raise money or track supporters). Digital media were absolutely central to his much praised "get out the vote" efforts and critical to his ability to court younger voters. By contrast, the McCain candidacy failed across all platforms -- not exploiting fully the potentials of new media and often, getting hurt by its mismanagement of traditional media (Think about Sarah Palin and Katie Couric).

The New York Time's David Carr and Brian Selter ran an especially strong article about "campaigns in a web 2.0 world" in the final days of the campaign, which perfectly describes the interplay of media platforms which shaped this election cycle. Here's a few highlights:

  • "We should be careful of these zero-sum games where the new media drives out the old," said Andrew Heyward, a former president of CBS News who consults for the Monitor Group. "I think what we see is growing sophistication about making the channels work together effectively."
  • "What is striking here is not the dominance of any one medium, but the integration of various channels," said Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
  • "I think that this time around, campaigns got used to the fact that anything that they put out there could be pirated, remixed, mashed-up and recirculated," said Henry Jenkins, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It is a much more rapid environment."
  • "At a time when almost anyone can check voter turnout in certain neighborhoods in Cuyahoga County, I don't think everyone is going to sit there and wait to be spoon-fed the election results in the order Brian Williams thinks is appropriate," said Joan Walsh, the editor of Salon, referring to a closely watched county in Ohio.
  • This last comment seems especially cogent. I was struck watching the election returns on CNN by how little the networks recognize that they no longer have a monopoly on information. Again and again, they were showing state-wide returns which were relatively meaningless without drilling down to explain what districts were reporting and what their previous voting patterns have been. One consequence of the Democrats having run in all fifty states during the primaries was that the news has already educated many of us about the local specifics of many of these districts and we know to be skeptical if the returns reflect a particularly skewed sample of the state. There was for example a moment when Texas was running something like 51 McCain- 49 Obama and it is clear in hindsight that this must have been heavily skewed towards returns from Austin and San Antonio, yet the newscasters were giving us no way of knowing what we were looking at. Anyone who was watching simultaneously with a wireless laptop in their hands could find very sophisticated data on a precinct by precinct level emerging in real time, making some of the information delivery functions of cable news more or less obsolete.

    But it's not clear the anchors really understand how porous the information environment was. At one moment, CNN had just announced the results from Ohio, which produced wild cheers from Grant Park, where the Obama supporters were gathered, and the newscasters were asking whether the people there understood what this meant. (Of course, the newscasters themselves were being coy about the full implications of this moment, since they did not want to declare Obama the victor before voting closed on the west coast, and so they were hinting but not saying that Ohio was the end of any hope for McCain's candidacy.) But, in a year where people have had unprecidented access to state by state, day by day polling, and where there have been countless news stories about every "battleground" state, it's hard to imagine anyone in Grant Park didn't know exactly what the Ohio outcome meant for their guy.

    At another moment, they suggested that the televisions were turned off at McCain's headquarters so no information was getting through. Come on! Has anyone at CNN heard about cell phones, blackberries, and wireless internet connections? The point is that the networks are going to need to start thinking about what their function is in a world where a growing number of people are processing election returns through multiple platforms rather than one where the only information they are receiving is streaming through cables into their televisions.

    Then, there were all of the new devices the networks were using to display their results. Some of them -- like the manipulable maps we've been learning how to use all year -- have started to develop their own rhetoric and serve specific functions. Though much parodied on places like The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, I love the ways the news has created new ways to visualize contingencies and hypotheticals, running through different game plans. This device was at its strongest when they were trying to show -- but not state directly -- that McCain had lost the election even before returns came in from California and the Pacific Northwest.

    The much publicized use of "holographic technology" by CNN, on the other hand, seemed like a display device with no clear function: what new information value was conveyed by having the ability to look at remote reporters from every possible angle? So far, we don't know. Isn't the point of having the reporter be on the ground that we can see the context where the events is ocurring? So what happens when we send them into a tent, cut them off from the crowd, and "beam" them back to CNN? Isn't the point of the use of holography for distanced communication that it allows participants to feel a stronger sense of telepresence? But then what happens when the anchor and the reporter are both still staring at a monitor and the 3d effect is layered in for the audience only?

    And of course the newscasters couldn't decide which metaphor was operating. Early in the evening, when it was first displayed, I said to my wife, "Obama-Wan, You are Our Only Hope!" and no sooner were the words out of my mouth then the announcers was making her own Princess Leia jokes. And that metaphor really did capture the texture of this new device which was still more than a little patchy. But later, they started cracking jokes about the transporter in Star Trek, which seemed to this fan boy to be particularly bad news. Any time a transporter signal has been this broken up, it's been early warning of an impending red shirt death, their atoms scattered rather than collected by the technology.

    Late in the evening, though, we saw television do what television did best. It was an extraordinarily powerful moment when the news anchors called the election for Obama and we cut to the faces of the people in Grant Park -- including tears streaming down Jesse Jackson's face, Oprah's joy, the wild excitement of his young and minority supporters -- or when we saw Martin Luther King's daughter struggling to be heard over the background noise of the choir at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. What television communicated so well was the immediacy of the experience, the social connection we felt with people across the country and around the world, and all of the emotions which surrounded this moment of political transformation. People who only followed the data on line missed the intensity of that experience. In my discussions at the Center for Future Civic Media, we often have debated whether civic engagement is a structure of information or a structure of feeling. CNN seemed to lose the battle to the internet in terms of providing meaningful access to information but it won the war in terms of offering us a shared emotional experience which may be vital to connecting the nation together in the wake of hard-waged campaign.

    Ellen Hume has shared with me a particularly rich site which gathers together the front pages from newspapers from around the country and across the globe the morning after Obama's victory. It's a great resource for teaching, since it allows you to see how the same news gets a different spin depending on the headline and imagery used.

    So what happens next? Will Obama deploy the convergence between old and new media as effectively to govern the country as he did to campaign for office? More and more, we see presidents in continuous campaign mode, trying to build public support behind their policies and preserve their public approval ratings between election cycles. Will we see Obama tap his social network of supporters to organize collectively when Congress balks at his legislative agenda? Will he use the web to gather collective intelligence about public policy issues and to conduct "national conversations" about core challenges confronting the country? Some hints may be seen at the Change.gov site which the Obama transition team put up the day after the election. "The story of the campaign and this historic moment has been your story," the website states. "Share your story and your ideas, and be part of bringing positive lasting change to this country."

    If this is the first step in the process, it already suggests a desire for real input from diverse groups and a commitment to transparency which will be a breath of fresh air after the secrecy culture and executive privilege claimed by the Bush administration.

    Is Obama now America's most powerful fan boy? Early returns suggest that it may just be the case: there are so many stories now about the Obama family voting on American Idol and reading the Harry Potter books together. The President-Elect is rumored to know how to give a Vulcan salute (to Leonard Nimoy no less), to drop casual references to Star Trek and other science fiction and comics texts into conversation. He's even alleged to have attended San Diego Comic Con one year. Of course, some of his street cred as a fan was damaged by a story in Newsweek during which he was qouted as comparing Michelle's belt buckle to "Lithium Crystals." Any Star Trek fan worth their salt monster knows that should be "Dilithium Crystals." We can only hope that the reporter misunderstood what he said but if so, he should demand an apology for the slander it poses to his fannish reputation. Let the fun begin!

    Be sure to check out the new blog and website for the Center for Future Civic Media.