Obama USA’08: the message is in the remix

(Cross-posted at Off the Bus and techPresident)

Watching the Obama campaign message, “Yes we can,” morph into a music video and then once again into a user-generated participatory project is to see the beginnings of Web Politics 2.0.

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There won’t be a singular moment that captures the ascendancy of the Internet in the way that the Kennedy-Nixon debates marked the arrival of television. In part this is, of course, because television dictates the “must-see moment,” while the Internet connects us in both more diffuse and more pervasive ways. Yet history will credit the Dean campaign for demonstrating the power of the Web and the Obama campaign for capturing its spirit.

A year after Time announces “You” person of the year, “You” is/are the centerpiece of the Obama message. Call it a movement (if you’re a believer), or mass delusion (if you’re a cynic), or crowdsourcing (if you’re a geek). What we’re learning is that while average candidates stand on their platforms, great leaders become a platform for supporters to stand upon. This is why observers who talk about the powerful Obama “brand” only tell half the story. True, the “O” logo and even the name “Obama” might well be the most generative meme since the original iPod ad. But where a professional marketer sees a political Rorschach test, an organizer sees individual citizens coalescing into a community based on common values.

Critics who hear Obama’s rhetoric as empty demand more policies, more specifics, more details. Marshall Ganz, Harvard’s grassroots guru and an Obama campaign consultant, blames the left’s failures precisely on this privileging of issues over values. True, the language of values sounds vague; it offers a blank slate on which anyone can scribble their dreams; it’s easy to confuse with mere “emotion.” But values frame political possibilities. Ronald Reagan opened one set of possibilities and closed another when he declared, “Government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Obama, if he succeeds, intends to formulate a new moral consensus. And that requires the joining of his supporters’ values.

Hillary Clinton describes the Democratic party — and by extension, her own campaign — as a fragile brand to be protected from frightening Republican attacks. There is, in this defensiveness, an echo of corporate efforts to protect intellectual property from unauthorized derivative works. After declaring, “Let the conversation begin,” Hillary Clinton offered up inert catchwords that defied permutation — “Ready” and “Experience” — because they were about herself, not her community’s common vision.

It’s by clearly articulating shared values, not specific policies, that Obama gives supporters license to not just repeat but also remix his message. True, the high profile “Yes we can” mashup came from will.i.am, Jessie Dylan, and other Hollywood luminaries — not exactly your average kid in the basement with a webcam. But that video is merely the sheen on deeper stories that underlie the campaign’s core organizers, sometimes even appropriated by Obama and then re-appropriated by supporters.

It turns out that Web 2.0 and effective movement organizing share something in common: the expectation that we all can do for ourselves rather than wait for someone else to do for us.

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