Campaigns tread carefully into world of Web 2.0

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Presidential candidates have discovered that being on the Web means more than posting a few glitzy pictures, speech transcripts and an “e-mail me” link.

Hoping to tap into the growing popularity of Web 2.0 applications like blogs and popular social networking sites like MySpace and YouTube, several of the candidates are gravitating toward such technology to garner support and raise money. At the same time, campaigns acknowledge that such efforts are not without substantial risk.

Therefore, observers note, these efforts aren’t likely to result in the type of strong Web 2.0 applications that Web-savvy users have become accustomed to. For example, most campaigns aren’t expected to fully open their blogs for the quick, public postings available to readers of many other popular sites today. Observers note that political campaigns must tread carefully, noting the firestorm of criticism aimed at Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards last week because of comments about religion made by two of his campaign’s bloggers.

Most campaigns are struggling with “how do you leverage Web 2.0 and true communities online while maintaining some control over your candidate,” said Julie Barko Germany, deputy director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University in Washington. “[Campaigns] want to be able to influence how people perceive their candidate.”

Thus, she said, most campaigns will post carefully crafted campaign messages themselves. “The race to the White House in 2008 will be all about how candidates talk to people online,” she added.

In the 2004 presidential race, the primary reason for candidates to use the Web was for fundraising, Germany said. As the 2008 race heats up, the Internet is becoming an integral part of campaign strategy, she said, noting that campaign workers who would have had titles as “webmaster” four years ago now being tapped with “director of new media” and “director of online outreach” titles.

Edwards announced his second presidential run with a video on the popular social networking site YouTube, and his Web site includes links to his personalized pages on the YouTube, MySpace and Facebook social networking sites — and even the photo-sharing and organizing Flickr site.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) officially announced her campaign on her Web site and her site describes plans to launch a blog.

On Saturday, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) formally announced his own presidential run in a speech delivered in person in Springfield, Ill., but he had already posted a video touting his new social networking campaign Web site the day before. In that video, he urges supporters to organize fundraisers, create their own blogs and profile pages, and network with others.

His official campaign site now offers video of his Saturday speech, as well as of a speech in which he urged supporters to “use this Web site as a tool to organize your friends, your neighbors and your networks.” He encouraged users to create their own blogs to chronicle their experiences on the campaign trail and noted the power of online communities when it comes to fundraising.

“We can collect small donations instead of having to rely on large campaign contributions,” Obama said.

David Kimball, associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the use of Web 2.0 tools is a way for candidates to meet and contact more of their likely supporters, raise money and attract volunteer workers.

However, he noted that the protests that surrounded the Edwards’ campaign worker blogs highlight that, “if you’re not careful you can end up being associated with unpopular views since the Web is more of a venue of unfiltered discussion.”

He echoed Germany’s thoughts on the heavy censorship likely used in campaign blogs. “[Campaigns] are adapting these technologies for their use in politics, but they are not adopting them wholesale,” he said. “They are making changes to fit their political needs.”

While the Republican National Committee has long been acknowledged by both parties to have better exploited IT in past elections to help its candidates, some of the Republican presidential candidate Web sites launched so far feature less social networking features.

The www.brownback.com set up by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.) doesn’t include any of the newer Web applications, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s www.mittromney.com includes videos but no blogs or other tools that backers could use to form online communities around his campaign for the GOP nomination.

Germany said she expects the Republicans to adopt more social networking and Web 2.0 tools as the campaign progresses. “Campaigns know there is power in these social networking sites and they will figure out how to leverage that better,” she said.

Politicians aren’t the only ones working to take advantage of Web 2.0. Corporations are flocking to social networks as a way to create and support communities of customers to help boost the appeal of their products. In the past two weeks, for example, General Motors’ Pontiac unit, Procter & Gamble and the Portland Trailblazers professional basketball team have all launched new social networking sites.

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