NEAL CONAN, host:
The Internet played a critical, many say decisive, role in the election of Barack Obama. The creation of a social networking site allowed him to raise unprecedented amounts of money, develop an email list of 13 million names and, maybe most important, to transform a candidacy into a movement.
The question now is how to transform a movement into a government? Do you expect emails or text messages from the White House? Do you watch Congressional hearings on your computer? Do you expect to contribute ideas to the new administration? And do you expect to be heard? Give us a call, 800-989-8255; email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Just click on Talk of the Nation.
Joining us here in studio 3A is Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas, who covered how people used the Internet during the election and has since written on how they and the Obama administration may interact. Happy New Year. Nice of you to come in today.
Mr. JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS (Reporter, Washington Post): Thank you so much for having me.
CONAN: And you draw distinctions between Bill Clinton as our first Internet president, George W. Bush as the first digital president and now Barack Obama you describe as the first online networking president. Describe the differences there.
Mr. VARGAS: Well, you know, when President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore created whitehouse.gov, I mean, it was really the first time in which the government was explaining what it was doing. It was publishing information on the Web and saying, this is what we're doing this week. This is the schedule of the president.
And then after that, when George Bush came in 2000, when President Bush came a lot of it was with podcasting, RSS feeds, email alerts and also video, right? And now with President-elect Obama coming in - I mean, we are in the kind of generation of YouTube and Facebook and Wikipedia.
What's interesting here is really that what has allowed this to happen is the evolution of technology. Let's not forget that YouTube is only really four years old. And what's interesting is, the key word with President-elect Obama is having a networked presidency, meaning, as you pointed out a couple of sentences ago, having a conversation. Like, how does that happen?
This idea that - I quoted, actually, Eric Schmidt, who is, of course, the chief of Google, who's also an adviser to Obama, who was talking about this idea that people expect - there's a level of expectation that people have about their government now. They expect their government to be transparent. They expect to know, you know, what kind of things they're doing that day, who they're meeting with, how much money they raise, where things are coming from. So, there's a level of expectation that Obama had built during the 21-month campaign.
I mean, if you're a Barack Obama supporter and you're a loyal Barack Obama supporter, you probably most likely had a profile on mybarackoabama.com, his social networking site, which was built by one of the co-founders of Facebook, Chris Hughes. Outside of that, you also - he had a profile in Facebook, in MySpace, in BlackPlanet, in MiGente. I mean, I like to think of the Internet as a big Wal-Mart. (Lauging) I mean, he basically had a presence in every aisle.
And now, all these people that have gotten involved and engaged now want to stay engaged and involved. And you can actually see that in the past couple of weeks, people have been disappointed with the choice of the Reverend Rick Warren to do the invocation and they've said that on change.gov, his own transition site. So, that's interesting.
CONAN: And have those comments stayed up?
Mr. VARGAS: Exactly, they've stayed up. There's actually two examples here in the past five years or so of then-Senator Obama talking back to this community. What had happened was, during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice John Roberts - at the time, people were really upset with some senators - some Democratic senators who were supporting his confirmation. Obama actually blogged on Dailycoast.com and said - explained - and he actually wasn't - he was actually - wasn't for Roberts, but he was explaining why Democratic senators were for him and it was OK that they were for him.
And a few months ago during the primaries, when he had basically switched his position on the wiretapping bill, people were upset and his supporters on mybarackobama.com were upset about this. And actually, Barack Obama posted a note on his own site, addressing the concerns of the supporters who were upset.
So that was, I mean - so, what I am trying to say here is, imagine what's going to happen 7, 8 months from now. Some policy he introduces, his own supporters or people who don't like Barack Obama go to whitehouse.gov and say, we are not for this. What is he going to do? Is he going to respond back? Is he going to create a YouTube video? I mean now, the radio addresses are being videotaped and available on his YouTube channel. So, that's interesting.
CONAN: We're talking with Jose Antonio Vargas of the Washington Post about the new technologies available to the new administration and how do you expect to interact with them. Give us a call, 800-989-8255, or zap us an email, email@example.com. Andrew's on the line, Andrew with us from San Francisco.
ANDREW (Caller): Hi, yes. I mean, I just wanted to say that, you know, there've been many people who have already participated on change.gov and suggesting anything from legislation to cabinet appointees. And I myself actually suggested, along with other people, a new cabinet position on sustainability for the incoming administration.
CONAN: On sustainability?
CONAN: And did you get a response?
ANDREW: I got the generic "thank you for your submission" - that sort of thing but nothing direct.
CONAN: And do you expect, eventually, some kind of response or some kind of reaction?
ANDREW: Not personally. I do expect that if there is enough - I mean, I've worked in politics. I've worked in legislation, so I know that, you know, you can't necessarily get back to every single person, especially on a level this large. But if there's enough people pushing for a specific issue, of course it's going to be addressed.
CONAN: Like the firestorm over Rick Warren?
ANDREW: Yeah, exactly.
CONAN: All right, Andrew thank … go ahead. I'm sorry.
CONAN: Yeah, go ahead.
ANDREW: Well, I also wanted to say that, you know, this isn't - this technology that's being utilized by the Obama administration isn't just being utilized by them. I mean, I've worked in local, you know, city, municipalities that sort of thing. And we were using blog, YouTube videos, photo galleries, interactive technology, you know, as far back as, like, three years ago.
So, it's great to see that there's this national use for it and that there's actually going to be someone in that position who's going to be listening to people. But this is going to affect, at least in my opinion, not just the overall but even the local municipality in a big way.
Mr. VARGAS: Let me actually add to that. And thank you, Andrew, for bringing that point out. I actually had written an essay on Sunday in our Outlook section at the Washington Post in which I said that, in many ways, you know, politics is not just local, it's viral.
This idea that, if you think back right now to your own government - your city council members, the school board members, your mayor, the treasurer, all these elected officials - what kind of relationship - I mean, at the end of the day, they're accountable to the citizens, right? What kind of relationship should they be building? What kind of transparency should they have to let people into the process?
And actually, in the article that I'd written yesterday, what we really have here in the local, in the national way - perspective is, you know, government lives in this kind of Encyclopedia Britannica era in which only a few editors are in charge to define certain words - right? - and tell us how to think of certain things.
Well, we're living in a Wikipedia era now. I mean, at any given moment - I'm telling you right now, at any given moment, you are not going to find a more comprehensive article on Barack Obama or John McCain than on Wikipedia. Because that's - how many people who are interested and intrigued at this process, they go in there and they look at the information.
Actually, we did an article on people who are Wikipedia editors because I've often wondered who are these people? Haven't you wondered that? And actually, a lot of them are accountants and lawyers who are just really, really persnickety when it comes to information, you know? Crossword-puzzle people, basically.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: This is a good thing. Andrew, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go next to Susanne, Susanne with us from Tallahassee.
SUSANNE (Caller): Good afternoon.
SUSANNE: Well, I was very frustrated today. I had decided to start the New Years by communicating with elected officials and Barney Frank was my first choice.
CONAN: The chairman of the House Finance Committee is it?
CONAN: And Banking Committee?
SUSANNE: And he only accepts emails from people in his district.
Mr. VARGAS: Oh.
SUSANNE: So, I had to really dig around and figure out how to reach him through his chairmanship.
Mr. VARGAS: Hold on. You mean your email bounced back?
SUSANNE: Well, no. I logged on to Barney Frank and unless you could put your district in within his Massachusetts area, you couldn't send him an email.
CONAN: I'm not sure how that's possible technologically.
SUSANNE: Well, it just wouldn't accept it. And I was just really - as a retired government official, I was just pretty mortified.
Mr. VARGAS: Huh.
SUSANNE: That, you know, he would think that only people within his district would have things to say.
CONAN: Was this on his Web site?
SUSANNE: Yes, I believe so. I had gone online and was looking up - you can get all the congressional representatives - highlighted his name and it pulled up this Web site. And then you had to fill in the blanks and your district and since I was from Florida, I couldn't.
Mr. VARGAS: I'm actually sure that if you called his office, just the main kind of "contact us" tab on the site, they should be able to give you an email address.
SUSANNE: Well, I eventually found a way by reaching him through the committee chair.
Mr. VARGAS: Yeah, yeah.
CONAN: Yeah, well, he is the committee chair. But, yes.
CONAN: All right. Susanne, thanks very much.
SUSANNE: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. And that raises a point - you can find a way but are unrealistic expectations being raised? There is a danger in that, if that's the case.
Mr. VARGAS: You mean unrealistic expectations of politicians?
CONAN: Yes. Or of access to politicians or that transparency you talked about.
Mr. VARGAS: Well, you know, what I find fascinating here, too, is that this is not something that's going to go away. Like for example - let me give you an example here. I had signed up on Barack Obama's text messaging program, right? And apparently, a million people ended up signing up for that.
So, I had gotten maybe - I don't text message with a lot of people, maybe seven, eight of my friends, and now Barack Obama. I'd gotten maybe 35 text messages from him throughout the campaign. I actually ended up saving them because, you know, I was writing an article on this.
But now, I'm thinking to myself, well, come, you know, come income tax time or come State of the Union address, am I going to get a text message from my president saying that, hey, you know, hey, tonight I'm going to be giving the State of the Union address...
CONAN: Tune in.
Mr. VARGAS: Tune in. This is a generation that's grown up with this. Like for example, I think, the under-30 crowd specifically, many of whom, by the way, turned out in this election. There were two more million voters under the age of 30 in this election than compared to 2004.
CONAN: Yeah, but still within the same proportion.
Mr. VARGAS: The percentage. Yes, but two million people more did vote. The expectation that they can be a part of this and that they should be able to just log on to a Web site in which, you know, the person's email address is there, the legislation that they pass is there, all the earmark that they've added is there. There's that level of expectation. And I think with Obama specifically, since he used the Internet so well - he had 90 people on his Internet staff - 90 people.
Mr. VARGAS: That's probably more than many news organizations right now have people in their Internet staff.
CONAN: More people than a lot of news organizations have period.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: We're talking with Jose Antonio Vargas of the Washington Post about e-government. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And just to follow up on that point, there is a position in government, which has not yet come clear.
Mr. VARGAS: No.
CONAN: And this is the - this is a newly-created position, the chief technology officer And what you write is that we will be able to tell a great deal about where that person is and who that person is.
Mr. VARGAS: The rumor right now is the frontrunner for the job is a guy named Julius Genachowski. He was actually an old - he's actually an old friend of Obama from his law school days. And he served as a chief technology adviser to the campaign. He was really the mastermind, in many ways, of how they built the operation of barackobama.com.
And with that job, I think, a lot of - and by the way, this is not somebody that they've announced yet. They're still working this, out of course. The president-elect has announced most of his Cabinet picks, all of...
CONAN: All of his Cabinet picks.
Mr. VARGAS: All of his Cabinet picks. So, this is something that they haven't done yet. But I think, at the moment actually, they're still trying to define what that job is actually going to be. As I noted in the article, you know, if this is a Cabinet-level position, that actually President-elect Obama during the campaign said he would have, what kind of role is that person going to play?
I mean, right now, when you go to F - for example, fda.gov or fbi.gov or any other site that has dot gov in the end - in many ways, these sites don't really - some of them aren't as user friendly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. VARGAS: Let me put it that way. They're not as user friendly as they ought to be. So in many ways, I think that job, that CTO job, is going to be making sure that the government, you know, is - has Web sites that are user friendly for citizens. For example, that woman that called.
CONAN: Yes, and indeed, but you also suggest, if that's a Cabinet position or Cabinet-level position, that's one thing. If he is placed elsewhere in the government, that's going to tell you something very different.
Mr. VARGAS: Exactly and that's not - and again, we don't know yet.
CONAN: We'll see about that. Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Michael, Michael with us from Portland, Oregon.
MICHAEL (Caller): Yeah, hi.
MICHAEL: Hey, I've been trying for two months - I've been emailing one particular idea that I've had - I'm a realtor, 14 years background. I've been through - this is the third housing recession that I've come through. And you know, when you're going through these recessions, you come up with some creative ways to help buyers and sellers either stay in or sell their home. And I've had this idea for two months that I think would be a great idea to have discussed, regarding people - the fact that there's so - there's hundreds of thousands of people that are facing foreclosure who have a lot of equity in their homes but they're being regarded right now...
CONAN: We have little time to talk about the idea per se, Michael.
MICHAEL: OK, well, yeah. The idea was - that I had was - I thought was important enough that it deserved to have some discussions. I've emailed it probably to every senator and Congressperson that I'm allowed to actually drop it into from their dot gov Web site, their email list, and had no response back from anybody, including my own editors and publishers of local newspapers. And it's…
Mr. VARGAS: Frankly, I mean...
MICHAEL: ...a little frustrating because...
CONAN: Yeah. I understand it's frustrating. Jose?
Mr. VARGAS: Frankly, I actually think, in this day and age, that's unacceptable. I think every single - especially here on Capitol Hill - and a lot of congressional offices don't have this yet because, I mean, a lot of this, of course, is staff, you know. There ought to be somebody that serves as some sort of a liaison between all these people that are wanting to have some sort of input or are wanting to have - give ideas or problems or complaints. I mean, there's got to be somebody like that that deals with constituents. And you know, I actually noted in the article that, in many ways, Capitol Hill is still adjusting to this. Although, I have to say that Speaker Pelosi has been really ahead of the curve. I mean, she has her YouTube channel, she has a blog, she actually has a new media team.
CONAN: Yeah. Hard to believe that members of Congress would not read the mail that comes into their office...
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Or have somebody read it.
Mr. VARGAS: Yeah.
CONAN: Somebody's got to read the email, too, Jose.
Mr. VARGAS: Exactly, exactly.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. And Michael, thank you for your call. Jose Antonio Vargas, a reporter with the Washington Post. Happy New Years, everybody. It's great to start another year with you here on Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.
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