Barack Obama and the Facebook Election

The president-elect was far ahead online, Matthew Fraser and Soumitra Dutta write.

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Let's look at the statistical results. Obama counted more than 2 million American supporters on Facebook, while McCain had just over 600,000. On the microblogging platform Twitter, Obama could count on more than 112,000 supporters "tweeting" to get him elected. McCain, for his part, had only 4,600 followers on Twitter.

On YouTube, Obama stole the show. His supporters uploaded more than 1,800 videos onto the channel, which counted about 115,000 subscribers. The channel attracted more than 97 million video views during some 18 million channel visits. Compare that with McCain's YouTube presence: Only 330 videos were uploaded to the channel, which attracted just over 28,000 subscribers. The McCain channel attracted barely more than 2 million visits and some 25 million video views. On YouTube, Obama beat McCain 4 to 1.

The YouTube coup de grâce, and Obama's biggest electoral coup, was the blockbuster "Yes We Can" video clip. It was that video's viral circulation, which caused it to be watched by millions of Americans only days after it was first posted, that gave Obama solid electoral credibility in Middle America. Suddenly he was like a pop star on MTV. The video wasn't even made by the Obama campaign team. It was produced, organically, by hip-hop star from the group Black Eyed Peas.

Obama also effectively used podcasts and electoral messaging to mobile devices—indeed, he had already been doing so as a congressman. As one observer put it: "While Obama was making great use of podcasts, John McCain was missing in action." The McCain campaign finally came up with the idea of posting a videogame called Pork Invaders on his Facebook page to underscore the war-hero candidate's determination to take on Washington pork-barreling. The Obama team, meanwhile, was harnessing the power of network effects through an "Obama app" for iPhones. It allowed supporters to virally spread the pro-Obama message to everyone on their contact list.

Obama had already honed his Web 2.0 campaigning skills against Clinton. While political pundits were following the Obama-Clinton head-butting on the hustings, Obama was outmaneuvering his Democratic rival below the radar on Facebook. In early 2007, more than a year before he won his party's nomination, Obama had attracted a massive following on Facebook while Clinton was struggling with the negative fallout of a Facebook movement called "Stop Hillary Clinton." While Obama's Facebook page had attracted more than 250,000 members, Clinton's page counted a paltry 3,200.

The Internet, to be sure, had been deployed in previous political campaigns, but it was used mainly to raise money. But as voters massively shift toward the Internet for social interaction, consumer purchasing, and political participation, office-seekers are rushing to establish an online presence and connect with voters on the ground. During the U.S. elections, more than 500 American politicians had their own Facebook page. Many more will in future elections—not only in the United States but also in Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, and other democracies.

From now on, success in electoral politics depends on having friends in low places.

Matthew Fraser is s enior r esearch fellow and Soumitra Dutta is Roland Berger chaired professor of business and technology at INSEAD. Their book, Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How Online Social Networking Will Change Your Life, Work and World, will be published by Wiley in the U.K. this month and in the United States in January.

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