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Barack Obama's plans for the web

Mybarackobama.com website
Barackobama.com motivated supporters to contribute, campaign, and vote

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News, Washington

On election night, as it became clear that Barack Obama had won the election to become the 44th president of the United States, his supporters received an e-mail in their inboxes.

It started like this:

"I'm about to head to Grant Park to talk to everyone gathered there, but I wanted to write to you first. We just made history.

"And I don't want you to forget how we did it….."

With a personal sign off at the end saying "Thank you, Barack", it felt intimate, yet this was a mass e-mail, sent to the millions who had subscribed to Barack Obama's campaign alerts.

One of the things that I'm excited about is to transfer what we've learned from this campaign in using technology, into government
Barack Obama
It's just one example of how the president-elect has used the internet to communicate and create a dialogue with supporters. The Obama campaign's effective use of new media played a big part in his success.

His presence on sites such as such as Facebook and Myspace created online communities which organised supporters to register, campaign, and ultimately go out and vote. He also sent out news via text message, using the medium to inform people of his vice-presidential choice.

In an interview before the election, he spoke of how he wanted to continue that conversation into the White House:

"One of the things that I'm excited about is to transfer what we've learned from this campaign in using technology, into government. I mean, there are huge areas where we can open things up, make things more transparent," he said.

New address list

As President-elect Barack Obama has begun a weekly YouTube address, something he is set to continue into office - a technological twist on the traditional weekly presidential radio address.

His transition team has also set up the Change.gov website to keep people informed of his preparations for government. It follows on from the successful Mybarackobama.com website, set up during the campaign as a place for supporters to meet and interact in the virtual world.

Why the internet will shape the Obama presidency

It's thought the Obama campaign employed as many as 95 permanent web staff and spent millions of dollars on its online operations. The reality, once in the White House, could be very different.

David Almacy, who served as Internet and e-communications Director under President Bush from 2005-2007, had a team of just six, and a budget of $1m per year.

The level of resources Barack Obama will throw into a similar set-up is as yet unknown.

Another unknown is how Barack Obama will continue to converse with the 13 million people who signed up to receive his campaign e-mail alerts, and reach out to those who weren't his Twitter followers or Facebook friends. Under privacy laws, the president-elect won't be able to take the e-mail list with him into the White House, though he can e-mail everyone on it to ask if they want to join a new whitehouse.gov e-mail list.

Thomas Gensemer, a managing partner at Blue State Digital, the media company behind Obama's web operation, believes that Obama campaign supporters will choose to follow the president-elect, virtually, into the White House.

"People want to rally to his cause whether it's political or policy. People are going to come. It's a matter of making it open and accessible enough that you do respect all the opt-in privacy policies as well as the campaign laws," he said.

More video

Once a new list is created, Gensemer says it could be used, in the same way as it was during the campaign, to send information directly to people, bypassing the mainstream media. It could be the start of the most interactive presidency we've seen.

Change.gov
Change.gov invites citizens to comment on healthcare reform
"I think a year from now we'll see streaming of the news conferences... there'll be that deeper communication and broadcasts directly to people as opposed to through the traditional media… On the technological side, I think there'll be more applications on mobile devices, more and more video. That will naturally develop as the industry does."

Barack Obama has already said he wants members of his cabinet to host regular webchats. Some campaigners have suggested that the new president himself should answer questions from the public at the end of his YouTube addresses and White House briefings.

But some plans appear to go beyond an increase in transparency to providing citizens with input into policymaking.

The Change.gov transition site is already asking people to submit their comments on Obama's healthcare plans.

Another interesting proposal is to allow the American public to view and comment on non-emergency legislation online before the future president signs it.

David Almacy says there are potential problems here, and the use of new media in this way needs to be carefully managed.

"I think it's wise for any president to use the tools of technology that are available to him to understand what the pulse of the country is talking about and thinking," he says.

"But the question is whether he'll be governing based on how people vote in online polls or whether he'll just be choosing policies and making decisions based on what he feels is right and on what is best to move this country forward."

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