Obama's digital kingmaker advises Aussies to get "real"

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Obama's digital kingmaker advises Aussies to get "real"

It's time to drop the corporate-speak to start dealing with your supporters, customers and partners like human beings.

That's the message Ben Self promotes on his tour of Australia this week and is the axis around which US President Barack Obama's Organising for America organisation is based.

As technology director for the Democrats during the campaign to get Obama elected, an outcome of Self's task was the shift of campaign funds from a few vested interests to the wider community.

The strategy raised $500 million from 2 million social networkers and at 200,000 events across the US.

Part of the re-imagining of how campaigns are paid for involved retooling the technology that contained information such as the party's national voter database, VoteBuilder.

And it brought social networks such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook out of dorm rooms and techie dens and into the gaze of voters all over the US - even in geographies the Left had traditionally shunned or where it was scantily represented, he said.

"Social networking is obviously a key part of any modern campaign," said Self, co-founder of US electoral consulting technology firm Blue State Digital. "Reaching out to existing social networks to talk to people already engaged in those networks and creating your own so supporters can find like-minded people on your site.

"You reach out through things such as Twitter and Facebook and MySpace to encourage people to come to your site and encourage people to volunteer. Bring them into the fold and into the campaign."

Such future communicating is about fulfilling the needs of others, he said.

"It comes down to forming a relationship with people using technology that feels like dealing with a family member," Self said. "Make it feel authentic."

Self founded Blue State Digital in 2004 with three others who worked on Howard Dean's election campaign. Now it consults to charities and corporations such as AT&T and Al Gore's We Can Solve It green group.

Self said part of his vision during his time in Australia, sponsored by the Internet Industry Association, is to "help organisations realise that you need to treat people you deal with online" as people.

"And develop a real relationship with them," he said. "Talk to them with a voice that's a real voice in an authentic manner and be honest with them. Be transparent about your organisation and what you're asking of them."

Self said Florida fundraising was an example of how the Democrats ignited interest in Obama in traditionally hostile places. Democrats sent out videos of the campaign manager "sitting at his desk at the office with junk around it (through) the camera on his MacBook Pro", he said.

"In this case (it) was about how they (Democrats) were going to use the money (they raised from supporters)," Self said. "Obama contested votes in states that Democrats traditionally don't contest like Georgia and Indiana."

He said technology allows organisations to reach constituents that they couldn't otherwise. "Obama reached out to voters who traditionally identified with the Republican party; (Obama supporters) in traditionally Republican areas could talk to their neighbours."

Read on to page two to find out how the Democrats prevented the possibility of a break-in to the party's campaign database.

A hallmark of the campaign was the ability of Obama's supporters to short-circuit "filters" such as lobbyists and media, Self said, to go direct to the people. But he said it's unlikely that this will extend any time soon to asking voters directly to pay for government projects.

And even though Obama's strategy was to bypass power brokers, Self doesn't see this as the end of representative democracy.

"Industry groups need to adapt to the same sort of thing - they can be more responsive to their whole community," Self said. As an example, he said having discussions with groups interested in net neutrality -- ensuring that all data sent over the internet is treated the same - is "still part of the process".

He said it was "not exactly correct" to call Organising for America a permanent election campaign.

"Just because you are messaging supporters doesn't mean that you are campaigning," Self said.

"You want to encourage this interaction and transparency.

"(President) Obama has said that he's going to use this group to further his legislative agenda - that's a good thing to have 13 million Americans pushing forward. Any time you have more individuals in the political process the more it's a good thing for the country and the more people you get out there voting the better."

"Digital Watergate"?
Self wouldn't be drawn on whether the Democrats had experienced a "digital Watergate" - a break-in to the party's campaign database - but said "security is a big focus". 

"We employ all sorts of industry best practices to secure data (and) monitor access to it. here were always cases of people trying to hack every website out there - any public-facing site is a target these days."

And although the technology behind the successful campaign was built largely on free and open source software such as PHP and Apache, Self declined any credit for President Obama's post-election tilt towards such software.

"I wouldn't say we were writing policy for the President."

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