TONY COX, host:
It began with Al Gore's candidacy in 2000, but it was President Obama's White House campaign that forever changed the way politicians view the Internet. Social networking, online coalition-building and Internet fundraising have become the new model for future politics and grassroots organizing. We continue now with our discussion of the Obama Effect with a look at the evolutionary used of technology. Joining us we have Omar Wasow, a contributing writer for TheRoot.com, and Nathan Henderson-James, an online communication coordinator for the grassroots organization ACORN. Omar, Nathan, welcome.
Mr. OMAR WASOW (Contributing Writer, TheRoot.com; Doctoral Candidate, African and African-American Studies, Harvard University): Thank you.
Mr. NATHAN HENDERSON-JAMES (Online Communications Coordinator, ACORN: Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now): Thank you very much.
COX: Omar, let's start with you. Many media outlets are eager to call President Obama the tech president. His campaign used real-time new-media tools to help get out the vote. His Web site was even created by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. What were some of the trailblazing online tactics that the Obama administration enacted which changed the game of campaigning?
Mr. WASOW: Well, they did a number of things that really broke new ground, among other things, as you mentioned, launching their own social network. They really, sort of, harnessed grassroots activism, so that it wasn't just them pushing out activities, but they let their, sort of, enthusiastic members of the social network organize their own fundraisers, organize their own sort of - kind of events to support the campaign. They really pushed a lot of power out to the margins, which is really how the Internet itself works at its best. It's much more kind of bottom-up. And they did this across the board, while also doing an enormous amount of email, so that they were able to generate three million donors online for $6.5 million donations and over half a billion dollars.
COX: Well, Nathan, speaking of bottom-up, many of the people in your organization - that your organization works with are from low-income backgrounds. How does social networking play a role in community organizing?
Mr. HENDERSON-JAMES: That's a really good question, and I think that, you know, our constituency is, really, still on the wrong side of the digital divide. Certainly, email is a lot more - got a lot more penetration that it has before, but it's still not going to be the same kind of thing that you've seen in an Obama effect. But one of the interesting things that you do see is there's a lot of cell-phone penetration, and I think that the future of social networking for our constituency is actually in text messaging.
COX: Well, you know, Omar, the New Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has promised to use Internet technology more effectively for his party going forward. Are there any new ideas left with regard to developing a high-tech campaign?
Mr. WASOW: Well, I think one of the interesting things about this last campaign was that there was this stark divide between what Obama was doing as compared with what both Hillary Clinton and John McCain were doing. They were both just entirely outclassed technically by what Obama did, and I don't think we'll ever see a gap that substantial in any future presidential campaigns. So, there's a lot of room for the next Republican presidential candidate to simply duplicate what Obama has done, and that will, even in closing that gap, you know, by a fraction, it will help a lot. I mean, even John McCain - I was looking in his Twitter page today. He had almost no tweets, no messages, sent out during the campaign. And now, he is doing it, you know, sort of hourly, and so, even he's caught up since the campaign ended. So, I don't know that there needs to be new ideas as much as, kind of, duplicating the success that was demonstrated.
COX: Nathan, let's talk about ACORN for a moment, because your organization made headlines last year for allegations of voter-registration fraud. We don't want to revisit that issue, but I do want to ask this question: How susceptible are grassroots organizations to abuses vis-a-vis the Internet when promoting a candidate or a cause?
Mr. WASOW: Well, if by abuses you mean attacks from folks who are not interested in doing what you're wanting to do, I think one of the things that the Internet does, is allow many more people to have a piece of the conversation and for that conversation to come in from very many corridors. So, I would say that it really facilitates the ability of folks to, kind of, talk back to what you're doing.
COX: Omar, in some lower-income areas - you touched on this briefly and so did Nathan - libraries, schools, even some community centers offer free Internet access. But oftentimes, these very same communities don't know how to use the Internet as a resource and they're not taking full advantage of it. Is that changing, though, and in what ways is that attitude toward access changing?
Mr. WASOW: I think what I would say is that the Internet is not fundamentally changing the degree to which low-income people, who may be more focused on their sort of urgent priorities of work and home and health, are being able to participate online. But what it does do is it lowers the cost of participating, so that people who might have been middle class who weren't participating, people who were lower middle class who might not have had the energy to kind of engage, it allows those people out the margin to become more involved. And so, it's not a radical transformation, but it is evolutionary, that it's not just people making big checks, showing up at big fundraisers; it's people who are inspired by something they see on TV going to a Web site and clicking through. And I think we should remember that while 40 percent of Americans are offline on a regular basis, that is, to say aren't online on a regular basis, there's a substantial majority of 60 percent; it's that block of 60 percent that are getting engaged politically.
COX: You know what's interesting, Nathan, also, is the fact that you talk about there not being as high level of engagement with the Internet in these communities, but at the same time, in these very same communities, everybody is on the telephone; everybody is texting. How is that disconnect made?
Mr. HENDERSON-JAMES: Well, I mean, that is absolutely the future of engagement on what we're currently calling online. All of these devices, all these capabilities, are going to converge in your phone. You're going to be able to surf the Web much more easily; you're going to be able to get email, text messaging. So, that is where we're going to go. And I think when that happens over the next five, 10, years, we're going to see, you know, it's not going to be 60 percent anymore; it's going to be 80, 85, percent. You're going to see a lot more engagement from those folks, and really, what that does is it helps, like, those communities have a voice, especially when they're working through organizations like ACORN that can kind of collectivize those voices and have an influence on political debates and policy debates and those kinds of things.
COX: Our time is up, Omar, but I do want to ask you really quickly just to answer this: Is Obama going to go down as the tech president?
Mr. WASOW: I think he is clearly the first Internet president and has transformed not only American politics, but politics around the world, by the model he has produced.
COX: It's an interesting thing, because actually, Al Gore was the person who sort of got this ball rolling, wasn't it? And yet, Obama seems to be the person who's going to really capitalize on the reputation from it.
Mr. WASOW: Obama won.
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COX: That's it; all right, he won.
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COX: That's a very good point. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.
Mr. WASOW: Thank you.
Mr. HENDERSON-JAMES: Thank you.
COX: Omar Wasow is a contributing writer for TheRoot.com and Nathan Henderson-James is online communication coordinator for the grassroots organization ACORN. Nathan joined us here in the studios of NPR West.
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COX: Next on News & Notes, Tyler Perry cross-dresses his way to a huge opening weekend at the box office and with broad appeal - we'll look at why - and an interview with the legendary Quincy Jones.
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