Just as the phenomenon of political blogging broke through to the mainstream with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's groundbreaking bid for the Democratic nomination in 2004, this election cycle marks the first presidential campaign of the YouTube era.
And just as the Internet "invented Howard Dean" by tapping into youthful enthusiasm and creative fund-raising techniques, the current campaigns have taken those building blocks and constructed the next level of functionality.
A recent Pew study contrasted the content of the two candidates' online presences, noting that "as of September 9, Obama had 510,799 MySpace 'friends' (compared to McCain's 87,652) and more than 1.7 million Facebook pals (compared to 309,591 for McCain). The Obama camp also had twice as many videos posted on his official YouTube channel than McCain."
In particular, though, Obama has engaged with potential supporters on a scale Dean could only have imagined. In the process, he has amassed a network of mostly young volunteers, bloggers and small donors, enabling him to raise the most money ever of any presidential candidate, and leading the Republican National Committee (RNC) to cry foul over suspected "illegal and foreign donors".
In an increasingly interconnected world, however, technology allows—indeed encourages—politics to spread beyond geographic borders. Whether domestic rules can keep up is a separate discussion.
In a new book, Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube & The Future of American Politics, Morley Winograd and Michael Hais advance the notion that what we are witnessing with this election is nothing less than a generational realignment, prompted by an explosion in online social networking and technological capability among an emerging generation of citizens—the so-called Millennials—who combine a personal optimism with a lack of faith in the current political system to adequately address society's ills.
In their book, Winograd and Hais talk about the importance for politicians of harnessing (or at least attempting to harness) successive technological waves: "While it is true that each time a new form of communications technology has appeared, the first candidate to figure out how to maximize its impact in campaigns has triumphed, it is also true that the ultimate winner of the campaign technology arms race has not always been the first to use the medium well," they write. "Sometimes the party that has suffered defeat from the initial use of the technology has learned from that experience and gone on to master the technology, using it to help regain power."
There are of course pitfalls. For every viral video sensation that has helped one candidate tap a groove of cool over another, there can also be a disconnected lapse, committed forever to video, or even a simple lack of understanding of how the unblinking eye in the end can even decide who gets to be a candidate and who doesn't. Events believed long consigned to history can be embarrassingly resuscitated years later. And although the campaigns and 527 advocacy groups are using Web-only ads to generate buzz with online audiences and the press, YouTube is sizzling with resurgent political satire that embraces those candidates able to use mainstream shows like NBC's Saturday Night Live or Comedy Central's The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as vehicles for communicating political messages to win hearts and minds.
As Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, founder and publisher of the influential left-wing blog Daily Kos (whose "Orange to Blue" fund-raising effort is an example of the power of connected reach) said in a recent interview: "Clearly the most effective online activism is the stuff that jumps offline or jumps into the traditional media. When you're trying to change society, you need to change people's opinions or you need to influence the gatekeepers. You either convince the gatekeepers to change their behavior or you build enough popular support that they have no choice but to change their behavior or you can bypass them."
And whereas there have been some recent advances in the study of media bias perhaps even the concept itself may soon be irrelevant. Might mainstream corporate media become even less central to a political discourse increasingly dominated, as Cass Sunstein argues, by an ideological "echo chamber"?
"When it comes to the Internet," he writes, "we demand the right to reinforce our own beliefs without embracing the responsibility to challenge them."
In that context, and in a society as politically polarized as the U.S. has been during this election cycle, there is a clear disconnect when roughly eight in 10 people believe the country is on the wrong track, yet the candidates are seemingly running neck and neck.
By the same token, though, it seems not unreasonable to speculate that the inevitable end product of the freedom facilitated by open-source politics is that a campaign becomes more than just selling the candidate and a rigid policy platform, rather it is taken out of the direct control of party or strategists and at least in some way returned to the people whose participation and commitment gives it meaning.