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Web 2.0 meets Campaign 2008

Podcasts and videos are among the features found on the interactive websites of US presidential candidates.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 16, 2007



WASHINGTON

Go to www.YouTube.com/emergencycheese and click on the video "Congressman Ron Paul Visits My Dorm Room." There, according to Georgetown student James Kotecki, viewers will see the first-ever interview with a presidential candidate from a college dorm room. They can hear Mr. Paul present his libertarian take on foreign policy, economics, and the Constitution. In the background, the clutter of toiletries atop Mr. Kotecki's dresser adds to the "just dropping by" feel.

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To Kotecki, college senior and political video junkie, his YouTubed interview with Paul is what the marriage of Web 2.0 and Campaign '08 should be all about: interactivity. Candidate-to-voter communication should be a two-way street, he says, not just one-way pronouncements.

Of course, most voters aren't going to have half-hour, one-on-one chats with presidential candidates. And chances are Kotecki, who aggressively courts candidate attention via YouTube, will find it much harder to land interviews with top-tier hopefuls like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York or former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R). If nothing else, a dorm-room drop-by probably doesn't fit the presidential image they're trying to project. But there's no doubt that interaction with voters – aided and amplified by still-unfolding Web innovations – is the name of the game in the 2008 presidential race.

Peter Daou, Internet director for the Clinton campaign, has watched the trajectory up close for years; he ran online outreach for John Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004. Interactivity "was important then, obviously," Mr. Daou says. "What has changed is the mechanisms to do it have become far more robust, more commonplace, more popular."

Onetime Democratic candidate Howard Dean's cutting-edge use of the Internet four years ago, as a way to raise big money fast, organize volunteers, and communicate with supporters, now looks downright quaint. And, analysts note, Mr. Dean's ultimate flameout as a presidential contender early in the 2004 primaries shows that success on the Web does not guarantee actual votes.

The same may hold true today. Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois, at least, hopes not. He blew away the competition in both parties by raising $6.9 million from 50,000 contributors online during the first quarter of 2007.

Web expands playing field

What's clear is that the advent of Web 2.0 – the wave of social-networking, file-sharing, and collaborative sites that have come into common use – has expanded the playing field for presidential candidates in ways that were unthinkable just a few years ago.

Wherever there are people, there will be politics. That's why candidates have flocked to set up pages on MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr. In the 6-million-member Second Life cyberworld, presidential candidates have "offices," organized by volunteers who keep in touch with the official campaigns. MySpace will push the envelope in Web-based politics when it conducts its own presidential primary on Jan. 1 and 2, 2008 – just before the real primaries begin. With 64 million MySpace members being asked to vote, that's a contest the candidates cannot ignore.

"The battlefield for the '08 election will be online, more so than ever before," says Michael Pond, media analyst at Nielsen/Net Ratings.

Aside from establishing Web presences on outside social-networking sites, the campaigns have sought to turn their own sites into hubs of interactivity. They solicit donations, recruit volunteers, and facilitate organization of events. They host blogs, with the candidates themselves making occasional posts. They upload videos that show viewers what it's like to be out on the campaign trail. Some offer RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feeds, run surveys, and solicit ideas on policy. Three candidate sites provide a voter registration link.

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