Does "Obama Girl" help Obama?

Author Clay Shirky explains how the Internet's capacity to create ad hoc groups has altered the media, business and politics -- especially the 2008 campaign.


Salon Staff
March 7, 2008 5:00PM (UTC)

Screenshot from the Obama Girl video

In the spring of 2006, a woman named Ivanna left her cellphone in a New York City cab. Normally that would have been the end of it: Another passenger steals the phone, and you go buy a new one. But because Ivanna's phone transmitted its contents to her cell company, she tracked down the thief easily: Sasha Gomez, a teenager in Queens. Ivanna's friend, a techie guy named Evan Guttman, e-mailed Gomez to ask for the phone. The teen declined. She threatened to beat Guttman's "white ass" with it.

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And thus began one of the strangest vigilante pursuits of justice in recent times. The police classified Ivanna's phone as missing, not stolen, and so refused to pursue Gomez. Guttman found relief, instead, on the Web. Over the course of a couple weeks, he won enormous publicity for Ivanna's plight; people across the world offered ways to help, and the media began covering the crime. Eventually the publicity pushed the NYPD to reconsider. A few weeks after the theft, police arrested Gomez and secured the phone.

The story of Ivanna's missing cellphone launches Clay Shirky's new book, "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations," an incisive and entertaining account of the ways in which "social tools" -- the Web and everything you do on it -- are altering human society. Ivanna's story is not unique; as Shirky points out, you hear such tales often these days. An old-world institution -- the police, the Catholic Church, a huge corporation (an airline, for example), a political party -- fails in some dramatic but predictable way. And then the people take to the Web -- they form an ad hoc group, they publicize their grievances, and somehow, confounding all expectations, they manage to do something amazing.

Shirky is one of those people who does so many things so well -- he teaches, he writes, he consults -- your best bet is to label him a "thinker." His book is the product of much research, but more than that, he puts down a lot of fresh thinking here. Human life, Shirky argues, is thoroughly "social" -- nearly everything big that we do, we do with other people. But until now, organizing in groups -- forming governments and corporations, say -- has come with high costs (taxes, bureaucracy, middle management). The costs were a barrier to action: Ivanna needed group action to get her cellphone back, but in the days before the Internet, a group would never have come together to help her -- getting a $300 phone back would not be worth the cost (in time, energy and money) of forming a group.

This, says Shirky, suggests the Web's true revolutionary power: The Internet "will transform the world everywhere groups of people come together to accomplish something, which is everywhere." We are seeing this firsthand, he said during a recent interview, in the world of politics. Exhibit A in how the Web changes everything: Barack Obama's presidential run.

It seems that your main aim here is to convince us that new social tools are changing the world in a more profound way than we generally recognize. Can you describe those changes? Are we underestimating them?

The argument I'm making is that the Internet isn't a decoration to contemporary society -- it's a challenge to it. It's not just that there's a lot of new things happening. It's that the new things that are happening are breaking parts of society that had actually been incredibly stable over a period of in some cases hundreds of years. And that is really the mark of a revolution. It's not just that some additional capabilities come into a society. It's really that the capabilities of the new tool cannot be contained by society's current institutions.

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Look at journalism, one of the canary-in-the-coal mine situations. We've carved out for journalists a bunch of special social characteristics -- we give them the ability to refuse a subpoena, for example, if they promise confidentiality to someone. And now we suddenly have a world where anybody can publish -- and how are you going to arrange to balance journalistic privilege in a world in which anybody can commit acts of journalism?

Journalistic privilege only works because journalists are a specifically identifiable minority. But now journalism is no longer a profession so much as it is an activity. There are some people who do it professionally and full-time, but there are some people who do it from time to time in small pieces. And that spread of people who can commit acts of journalism isn't just a new capability in society, it actually breaks some old bargains.

Isn't that true of most new technologies? I assume that the automobile broke certain aspects of society. TV did. Is this different?

My argument is pretty simple: We are living through the largest expansion in expressive capability in the history of the human race. The effect of new capabilities destabilizing existing behaviors has been very profound for really major communications changes -- as with, say, the printing press and the telephone. Given the enormity of the change we're living through -- the first group-oriented medium in history -- change is now coming to every place where society relies on groups to get work done, which is almost everywhere.

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Can you go over how that change happens?

We are used to a world where doing anything at large scale requires a formal and hierarchical institution. The great debate of the 20th century was, Are really big activities better taken on by governments -- the communist answer -- or are they better taken on by businesses operating in the marketplace -- the free-market answer? But the "dot dot dot" at the end of that answer was, "because obviously people can't just get together and do these things on their own." That is increasingly what is happening now. Groups that were once so disassociated from one another that they couldn't do anything are now starting to work together.

There's this great example of the Air Passengers Bill of Rights. The airline industry has fought off for eight years any threat of legal rights for passengers stuck on the tarmac. All of a sudden out of the blue this little organization forms, the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights. They go out and recruit a bunch of members who are on these flights that were delayed a year ago, and they get tens of thousands of people in a few weeks. After eight years of no movement whatsoever, they suddenly changed a lot. And the airlines didn't know what hit them. But what hit them was that the passengers who previously would have had to have had a sponsoring organization to kind of rally them. The passengers just got together on their own, and that was enough. And that's a big change -- when the environment in which a company's operating includes the possibility of pushback from its own customers.

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On the other hand, what about MoveOn.org? They have a huge number of subscribers to their e-mail list, and they're effective at raising money, but they didn't manage to get John Kerry elected, for example. [Update: A MoveOn.org spokesman called me today and strenuously objected to the premise of both my question and Shirky's answer; he argued that MoveOn achieved substantial electoral success in the 2006 election, helping defeat several incumbent Republicans. See more here.]

Exactly. I mean the irony of their name is that they did not succeed in getting the nation to move on from the Clinton impeachment. As far as I know no candidate they've supported for national office has ever gotten elected.

Why? And are other political groups doing better?

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In the old days -- which is to say roughly early 1990s -- if you were on the Hill and got a letter from one of your constituents, that counted for about 2,000 votes. You could assume that 2,000 constituents in your district felt that way, because the threshold to writing the letter was relatively high. I asked Danny O'Brien, who works at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, what he thinks the number is for e-mail. He said, "I know what it is -- it's zero." Because e-mail is so easy to send, effectively all senators and representatives now regard e-mail as being a meaningless signal. So MoveOn has adopted a tool which is good at making its members feel like they're participating but which is bad at convincing anybody. [Ed. Note: O'Brien doesn't remember saying exactly that; he explains his thoughts on e-mail campaigns here.]

Barack Obama has plainly made better use of the Internet -- not only better than Howard Dean did, but also better than any other candidate, Democrat or Republican, in this race, with a possible exception of Ron Paul.

The three things Obama has done incredibly well is, first, he has adopted the language of "wide pockets versus deep pockets" -- he's been getting a lot of little donations rather than a few big donations.

The second change is, he has a class of people creating user-generated videos for him. From the 1984 video to Obama Girl to will.i.am, this is world-class. The pro-Obama stuff on YouTube is not necessarily of incredibly high production value, but it's all effective. He has managed to recruit a distributed, free political-messaging group that nobody else has figured out how to harness.

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Third, he's figured out how to take volunteers who are really interested in his campaign and to get them to go out and get votes. The catastrophic failure of the Dean campaign is that they created a movement rather than a campaign. The people who are excited about Dean were really, really excited, but their excitement turned off the people whom they needed to be just barely excited enough to go out and vote. Obama has found a way to organize his campaign so that when people sign up to volunteer, they're actually given the organizational model and the tools and the emotional support they need to go out and convince other people to vote. That strikes me as the big revolution in this campaign -- Obama has cracked that particular code in a way that nobody else has.

There are a couple things I want to challenge you on there, though. First on the money part of it -- isn't it ironic that even though Obama and Clinton are raising all this money over the Internet, they're spending it all on TV? What does that say about the power of the Internet?

That says we're still in a transitional period. Anybody who pays attention to the back-page part of the Super Bowl ads knows that every year they reach fewer people and cost more. We're in a world where the old method of reaching everybody -- TV -- is increasingly broken, and the new way of reaching people, which is on the Internet, is not yet completely effective, particularly if you're trying to reach older voters. I think probably for one and two more election cycles, the money-sink that is television advertising is going to get more adverse. And then it is going to reverse [that is, political campaigns will start to shift their ad dollars to the Web].

I also wonder about the user-generated media for Obama. People are already starting to accuse Obama fans of being a little cultish. If his supporters are so excited about Obama that they're actually doing media for him, is there a danger that they might turn off outsiders?

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There is absolutely that danger, and I think it's precisely what Dean suffered. The interesting thing about Obama is that it has largely not happened yet. My guess is if it's going to happen, it'll happen in the general election.

If some group of radical antiwar protesters made a pro-Obama video that ascribed to him other characteristics that most Americans find distasteful, that will be the great test of user-generated content. He's currently riding on an incredible low-cost media updraft, but there's also the possibility that a message is going to get out there that people associate with him that he didn't create, and that he can't abjure quickly enough. That hasn't happened yet, and I think the closest they came to it is the kind of silliness of Obama Girl, which was relatively harmless compared to what we're talking about. But you can certainly imagine it happening.

At the same time, can his supporters better protect him or defend him from attacks? From a Swift-boating, say?

If Obama is Swift-boated, as doubtless he will be, my guess is that the response that's going to come from pro-Obama forces who aren't working for Obama is probably going to be more effective than just a series of statements from the Obama campaign itself.

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But we are still in relatively imbalanced territory. We don't have two candidates that are using the Internet in an imaginative way. The really radical test will be in 2012 or maybe 2016, when both leading presidential candidates are equally adept at harnessing the Internet. Then we're really going to see what this kind of amateur-network vs. amateur-network campaign looks like.

I have an interest in this because I just wrote a book on how the shift from mass media to niche media is changing society's viewpoints. While I applaud some aspects of the shift, and while I agree there's certainly no stopping any of this, I don't think it's necessarily all beneficial. When it's so easy to form and find groups that you agree with, you can be deluded into thinking that everyone agrees with you. I think those are real challenges in the new media environment. Your book is more descriptive. You don't really take a stand on whether these changes are "good" or "bad."

The book tries to be more descriptive than proscriptive because my main concern is not that readers have a sense of whether these things are good or bad, but rather that I want them to be able to recognize these things when they see them happening.

That having been said, I think you're absolutely right that there are some significant downsides to this. I'm somewhat more sanguine about the echo chamber than some people. I think a lot of what we feel on the Internet is not only about associating with people who share our views but also the sudden shock of exposure to people whose views are very different from ours. I think that eventually we'll see that what we dubbed as the echo chamber effect is often produced by evidence that people don't share your views, which causes the leaders of those communities to double down.

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But there are still some significant negative effects for society. Let me give you a quick example of where I think the challenge is. I don't care what happens to the newspaper as a form. I'm an inveterate newspaper reader, a very deeply loyal Times reader. But I'm not a nostalgist. I don't expect 25-year-olds to read the paper, and I don't think it's a problem that they don't

So bye-bye paper part of the newspaper. What strikes me as a problem is the threat to investigative journalism. What newspapers do that weblogs don't currently do is they send someone down to City Hall again today to look into something. It may be nothing, but it may also be that the mayor has been sending contracts to friends. And that kind of sustained investigative journalism is not well replaced by what we have in the blogosphere, for all of the other advantages of weblogs.

The conversation I think we need to be having is not: How do we make sure that the newspapering world gets back to being what it was like in Chicago in 1957 when everything was so great. Those days are gone. The question to be asking ourselves is: How do we support sustained investigative journalism in the world where all of the old models are broken. The thing that I lament is that there is, on one hand, a largely cyber-utopian chorus, but on the other side, the people who are fighting to preserve newspapers are fighting to preserve the wrong thing. They are fighting to preserve an outmoded business model. They can't see that it will not be a problem for society if they don't get their news on paper anymore, but it will be a problem for society if, however they get their news, it doesn't include investigative journalism.

But is it possible that there is no answer?

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It is absolutely possible that there is no answer. In the case of investigative journalism I think it's so important that my guess is there is going to be some kind of answer.

One of the most fun things for me in researching the book was going over the changes that happened after the invention of the printing press. It became clear that the story that I've learned in school -- that the printing press comes along, and you get the Enlightenment, the Treaty of Westphalia and the rise of the nation-state -- that kind of crosses over a hundred years of chaos and bloodshed. And for the first hundred years, the printing press broke more things than it fixed. You had a continent that truly did not know what to think, whose citizens did not know what to think about their allegiances.

It's entirely possible that there's a bunch of stuff that the Internet is going to break -- like investigative journalism -- that is just going to stay broken for a long time, and you and I may not even live to see what it looks like on the other side. My nightmare scenario, which I don't put in the book because it's speculative, is about the small newspapers that are really going to take it in the neck, like the New Orleans Times-Picayune or St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In a world where investigative journalism goes away, you start to get endemic civic corruption in all cities of less than a million. And that may just happen, and there may be nothing anybody can do about that short-term. But again, it's an argument that this is a really big change. This isn't just a decoration on contemporary society. It's in upheaval.

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I talked about Obama and Clay Shirkey's book in my video for Current TV this week:

Note: A spokesman for MoveOn called me today to argue that I was wrong to suggest, in my question to Shirky, that MoveOn hadn't seen any major electoral successes. MoveOn argues that it played a pivotal role in the 2006 mid-term elections, when Democrats won back the House and the Senate. MoveOn points to its "Caught Red Handed" ad campaign, which targeted nine Republicans across the nation with charges of malfeasance. Defeating those Republicans looked like a long shot, MoveOn says, but MoveOn's efforts helped push five of them to defeat.

The MoveOn rep also pointed out an interesting study by Yale political scientists Donald Green and Joel Middleton. The study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the Quarterly Journal of Political Science, says that MoveOn's get-out-the-vote operation in 2004 increased voter turnout by nearly 11 percent. That substantially beat the average success rate of get-out-the-vote efforts -- around 7 percent increased turnout.

The study makes a good case. Considering the nature of its work, MoveOn comes in for a lot usually unjustified hard knocks -- and I've defended it in the past -- and I'm sorry that I was so quick to write off during my conversation with Shirky. Back to top.


Salon Staff

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