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Michael Slaby on Tech, Politics, and Freedom

Michael Slaby was Chief Technology Officer for Obama for America

Michael Slaby was Chief Technology Officer for Obama for America.

His team was responsible for the technology behind the online campaign. He’s giving a Berkman lunchtime talk. NOTE 1: I’m liveblogging, aqnd thus getting things wrong, paraphrasing, missing points, etc.

Do not trust these notes. NOTE 2: Ethan Zuckerman’s far superior livebloggage is here.

He begins by modestly disclaiming credit. His group didn’t build the 13M-person mailing list. He at first didn’t want to do Twitter. President Obama was a spectacular campaigner. Everyone was clear about what needed to be done. He says he was part of an incredible team that executed well, including, Chris Hughes and Joe Rospars [and one more person whose name I did not get - dw].

Lessons from the campaign: The importance of being genuine. You can’t fake who you are. He points to the fact that old people who try to sound cool always sound ridiculous. “If you fail the genuineness test, you will lose the ability to make a connection with your supporters.” A motto from the campaign: “Respect. Empower. Include.” When they went into Iowa (where they had an astonishing 33 offices), they understood they were visitors. [Unlike the Dean campaign four years earlier? -dw] Also: Be generous with ownership. Empower your supporters to be your best advocate. “People trust other people about you more than they trust you about you.” “Giving away control means you have to teach your values.” That way, instead of telling them what to do, you can give them tools to act and they will do the right things. They’re going to say some things you don’t want them to, but they will pass the “genuity” test more than you will.

This campaign was won in the field, not online. The impressive thing about having 2M Facebook supporters was that half of them went out and did something for the campaign. When you start a campaign, you’re in a relationship with people. When the campaign started, FB didn’t have fan pages, so you’re just another profile, so you have to act like one, respond to people, etc.

Tell good stories, he says. Lots of people can write a good email, but few can structure an email program that will last for two years.

“The Obama campaign was a good object lesson for technology serving purpose.” Tech is merely a means. “We didn’t use stuff in the campaign that didn’t help us win. That was my mantra: ‘How does this help us win?’”

He says that it was amazing that Secretary Clinton gave an Internet Freedom speech, but that much was absent from it. Our goal is promote democracy, but democracy depends on lots of other things in the culture. It’s myopic to think that democracy is banging on the door of totalitarian states. It can be difficult to go from an authoritarian regime to elections; elections may not be the first thing to do. If we want Net Freedom, we should make it more partisan. We are fine with censorship of some things, e.g., child pornography. So, we should be more explicit about what we value, rather than pretending to support Net Freedom overall. We need to articulate what the purpose of Net Freedom is.

Q: What do you mean by stories?
A: The story on the Obama campaign was born out of Pres. Obama’s personal story as a community organizer, who wanted to empower others to enable change. [I'm paraphrasing poorly.] When you run an email campaign, you have a specific goal, but if it’s not part of the wider message you get a clanging cymbal [symbol?] problem. So, if you send an email asking for a large donation, it clangs against the story that this is about empowering a wide range of people, so we wouldn’t send that email. Joe Rospars came up with the idea of flying 4 low-dollar donors to “dinner with Barack”; usually, you have to donate $100K’s to get dinner with the candidate. Pres. Obama loved these opportunities. “In the summer of ‘07 when we were this crazy longshot, we were telling Pres. Obama’s personal story.” Even back then Pres. Obama talked about this being “your campaign.” “If that’s going to be who you are, that’s how you have to stay who you are.” E.g., you have to remember what you’ve told your supporters.

Q: How do you get all these people on the same page? And what mistakes did you make that we can learn from?
A: Joe Rospars, the dir of new media, was a peer with the dir of communications. Joe reported to David Plouffe. It was important for us to be able to say no credibly. There was little drama. The top has to lead with values. Not everyone is comfortable talking about values because they think it’s too soft. “It’s hard to distill your passion into something that is easily articulated and easily understood.” “The humility of knowing who you are is really important.” It’s missing from our Net Freedom policy.
In terms of mistakes, it was great to have the freedom to try things and fail. We thought an honest way to do fund-raising: we’d let people buy the things we need by posting a list. You’d rent us a van and then we’d send you a photo of the van. Sounds great, but it didn’t work at all. Too complicated. We tested an email campaign this way, where you could buy a line item or you could get a t-shirt for contributing, and the t-shirt won. (It’s important to understand when you’re in a tech echo chamber, he says.)

Q: [ethan] At a talk one of Howard Dean’s organizers in response to a question said online campaigning means getting a lot of email addresses and raising money from from. You’ve addeed: Make sure your supporters understand your values and let them speak on your behalf. Great for politics and non-profits. But there’s a gap between that and the larger movement-building that some of us hope will come out of the Net. [That Dean person's characterization is quite unfair to the Dean campaign, which built open source social networking tools, and went out of its way to make sure supporters felt empowered to talk for the campaign. See Joe Trippi's book. - dw]
A: Emails are great for raising money. But, converting online interest to offline action is the most important metric. Everything we did was based on mobilizing people, including building tools to allow people to volunteer easily online. E.g., signing up for a shift is a gigantic pain; we did it fairly effectively with a lot of different tools. We had MyBarackObama that let people find each other locally and go out into the community. Those are the tools that are most interesting for general advocacy. Cf. Chris Hughes’ Jumo that will create a community and then bring organizations to the table. Chris is a genius, says Michael. For engagement online, you have to go where people are; most advocacy campaigns don’t have the advantage of being on TV every day for two years the way we did.

Q: [wendy] What’s your favorite tool for listening to people, and how many do you listen to as opposed to making people feel like they’re being heard?
A: We handled this by having lots of staff. Don’t go into a social medium that you’re not prepared to support with staff. By the end, we had almost 100 paid staff in HQ on new media, plus people in every state, plus a lot of interns, many of whom were helping us respond to people individually. We did a lot to make people feel heard; we’d ask people for their stories and feature some of them. “The only way to make people feel heard is to hear them. You need a person answering a question.”

 

Q: [me] The Dean campaign went with the idea of horizontal links rather than staffing up to get people to feel connected. Also, they thought those bonds would later form a movement for governing. Did you think about how the tools you were building to win the election might be used to govern?
A: We knew the campaign was temporary. OfA has continued. But when you only have horizontal connectiions, they’re only teaching each other, and there’s less room for you. That may be one reason they were so powerful after the Dean campaign – they weren’t that connected to the campaign. The whole goal of our campaign was to take on K Street, to change the way influence works.

Q: [me] Do you share the criticism that OfA wasn’t carried forward enough? David Plouffe was brought in to reinvigorate it recently?
A: Everything could be done better, but it’s really hard to carry this forward. It’s far more boring than campaigning. Macon Philips is doing a great job with the new media team in the White house, but it’s hard, in part because of legal issues. And David Plouffe was brought back maybe also because it’s getting to be time for midterm elections.

Q: Involving communities?
A: It’s still a goal. Unrealized goal. Doing local stuff seems easier when you’re campaigning and have lots of local resources. It’s important not to over-promise and under-perform. If you don’t have the people to support local people in a few places, not supporting local people everywhere is bad. It looks like you don’t care. But, all of those goals are still goals.

Q: What else did you do culturally or managerially to keep people focused on the campaign’s values?
A: There was a focus on “What are you doing for Iowa?” Iowa was so key to the campaign. I love Iowans now. Iowa was a big part of who we were for the first year. It’s very hard to be a good boss in a campaign: everything is an emergency, you never have enough resources, no one sleeps. The values stuff is central or else you’ll burn out. People aren’t paid well, overworked, under-resourced, which is a recipe for making people undervalued. You have to find other ways to make people feel taken care of and heard. There was a lot of bottom up, but there’s also top down; you have to cut off conversation and just go. Campaigners are very difficult, so you need to take care of your people.

Q: Your tools matched your values. Do you have problems with people using it for other values?
A: Our tools were election tools. There’s a tension between a national and a local goal. But, you’re right that form follows function. When goals change, sometimes tools adapt, but not always. You need more than one tool, and if your problems change, your tools have to change; it’s hard for big orgs to be that nimble. That’s one reason why open source tools are often useful.

Q: [donnie dong] The Net is so interactive that if someone doesn’t like your values that s/he shuts you out, and s/he takes others with her/him
A: Absolutely. This is how the Net works. You get negative comments. It’s not a problem with the tool; with interactive tools, you now know the symptoms that were there but you didn’t know about.

Q: Criticisms make the praise more meaningful.
A: I totally agree.

[herkko] What legal problems? Any copyright problems?

A: We made sure to educate the people we were empowering. If people were going to fundraise for us, we explained the rules to them. Of course there were problems, but nothing too severe. “There was no point in the campaign when I was worried about what we were doing.” We set a high bar for being a supporter. Hanging out on the email list was not enough. If you’re going to do more, you have to take responsibility for your actions. We tried to educate people properly and give them the right tools.

[donnie] Difference between the content you created and the user-generated stuff in terms of quantity?
A: No idea. Most of the content was coming from the campaign. Personal content tends to be more personal. That’s the reason why it’s good. A person telling a story about their own life is more engaging than me telling a story about that person. Ideally the user-generated content and campaign content works together. UGC is worth the danger.

Q: What did you do in social media that resulted in the most offline activity?
A: Measuring social media is difficult. FB’s calendaring structure is good at supporting events. Text messaging was good for getting volunteers to go to a particular place to do some work. We never got to the Holy Grail of knowing who is where and can do what. The data integration posed by campaigns is overwhelming. You have disparate data sets of disparate quality, and you’re not going to be able to match them all up. Even though it’s hard, you need to try to measure. How do you decide what gets credit for why someone went out to vote — TV ad, FB message, etc.?

[the talk ends, but no one leaves]

Q: Where are you addressing your concerns about Sect’y Clinton’s talk?

A: Privately so far. This is the first I’ve talked about it in public…

Read the original blog entry...

More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog (www.hyperorg.com/blogger). He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."

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