Last night, at the Royal Automobile Club on London’s Pall Mall, Zeitgeist was fortunate enough to hear Harper Reed, the Chief Technology Officer of the Obama 2012 US presidential campaign speak candidly about how he helped get out the vote and keep the Democrats in the White House. Harper is ex-Threadless, the famous T-shirt company that lets users contribute their own designs, with the most popular becoming actual products sold the world over. It’s a democratic philosophy, one that understandably caught the attention of the campaign committee. It is also the kind of thinking that cities like New York and Chicago are starting to employ; actively gathering, analysing and distributing data to inform policy implications and help citizens. What follows is a brief summary of his thoughts and points that Zeitgeist found interesting.
Harper began the talk with the fundamentals, discussing how, when he arrived, the campaign seemingly already had much of the data gathering resources needed to achieve what he wanted. The trouble was it as all siloed. Putting all the data together was a major step in the right direction, toward cohesive data analysis. He elaborated, saying they went from having fifteen different numbers for doors that needed to be knocked on, to one. On hiring the right people for the task at hand, Harper was explicit in noting that they had hired tech people and taught them about politics, rather than the other way around. He riffed on the state of journalism, saying it was similarly important when hiring journalists that know about tech.
One of the more interesting insights Harper talked about involved the target demographics. Those most likely to vote are male or female 18-28, and women perhaps in her 50s. The younger group is adept and comfortable with all digital platforms, but still uses paper a fair amount. Paper, by contrast, is an essential medium for that middle-aged female voter. So the insight was about making paper use more efficient, given these groups’ use of it. Understandably this was a hard decision for a group of very tech-minded people to arrive at, but the acknowledgement showed they were willing to park their own pre-conceptions on how things ought to be done.
Like many startups, they were constantly trying to fail in order to create redundancies. This involved hosting hackathons where code was obsessively broken and then reconstructed, “ensuring things would break in ways we understood”, as Harper put it. They had the same approach with the content they published, aggressively testing every piece to make sure it was relevant and engaging for the intended audiences. What they failed to foresee was the Internet activist group Anonymous launching a DDOS attack the day before the election to coincide with Guy Fawkes day, which helped trigger a meltdown over at Amazon’s cloud servers, AWS. Harper made it sound like not too much trouble to switch the servers from the East Coast where they had been affected, to the West Coast, but the experience must have been a stressful one.
Lastly, he offered an opinion increasingly shared by many in the industry, which was a reluctance to talk of mobile device use as “second-screening”. Mobile devices, Harper pointed out quite rightly and obviously, are the first thing you look at when you wake up, the last thing you look at when you go to bed, and the thing you’re actually looking at when you’re supposed to be watching TV. Mobile first should always be the initial mindset.
In questions, Ruth Porter asked whether there were any pearls of wisdom that could be applied to those in UK politics and how they go about with their own strategy of getting out the vote. Harper conceded he had met that day with a party “whose name starts with ‘L'”, and believed that what was key was investment, commitment and belief from the very top in what social and data could do for the campaign. Without that, such efforts would amount to nothing. The lessons of the Obama 2012 campaign – and the pitfalls of Romney’s campaign – offer valuable lessons for political parties, but it seems any efforts at cherrypicking ideas or going in half-hearted would doom any prospect of leveraging what the Obama team were able to do.
While the rest of the world quickly comes to grips with the passing of Kim Jong-Il, master of North Korea, Zeitgeist is still pausing for thought over the death of Christopher Hitchens, master of the painfully incisive, devastating epithet. Zeitgeist has had the pleasure of reading several of Hitchens’ essays over the years, mostly from Vanity Fair. Christopher Buckley, writing in The New Yorker, delivered an excellent obituary on the man. As well as managing to anger pretty much anyone, no matter what their political or religious creed, Hitchens also had some thoughts on his own oeuvre. Writing more than ten years ago in his book No one left to lie to, Hitchens wrote of Drudge (of Drudge Report infamy),
“Drudge… openly says that he’ll print anything and let the customers decide if it’s kosher. This form of pretend ‘consumer sovereignty’ is fraudulent in the same way its analogues are. (It means, for one thing, you have no right to claim you were correct, or truthful, or brave. All you did was pass it on, like a leaker or some other kind of conduit. The death of any intelligent or principled journalism is foreshadowed by such promiscuity).”
Something for anyone who writes a blog to bear in mind. It certainly points to a larger trend, which, ten years on, is still a problem for those writing online, that of a lack of regulation. Not that any such regulation has prevented widespread abuse of power in ‘legitimate’ journalism, either. The problem with tougher rules and sanctions – ex ante or ex post – is the worry that such pressure will negatively impact on the quality of stories journalists deliver. It was the press, after all, who broke the story of the phone-hacking scandals. The dilemma will not be an easy one to solve, especially at a time when most newspapers continue to experience financial losses and a resultant brain drain of staff to more stable and lucrative lines of work. The loss of luminaries like Christopher Hitchens will not help matters.
From the Winter 2009 Zeitgeist…
“Even in the face of tyranny, people insisted that the world could change.” So said President Obama at the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Both Obama and the destruction of the Wall demonstrate the power of the populous. Weʼve seen time and again that when people have come together, online, to demand action over something, they have precipitated change. From Facebookʼs accession to Canuck privacy requirements, to HSBC changing their policy for student customers, social networks can help upset the order of things.
When more is at stake than the reinstating of an erstwhile chocolate bar, what then? Horace wrote some time ago “The mountains will be in labour; a ridiculous mouse will be born.” Thousands spoke out online in protest at the rigged Iranian elections – Afghanistan, with only 25% mobile and 1% fixed-line penetration, didnʼt stir similar attention–demonstrating a heart-warming solidarity with the Iranian people. But did it achieve anything substantial? CNN said Twitter and Facebook posts provided the US with “critical information in the face of Iranian authorities banning Western journalists from covering political rallies.” However, the camaraderie was not terribly helpful for Iranians. Despite months of protests on the streets, Ahmadinejad is still in power, and those caught face harsh punishment.
This past week has seen an event of potentially similar import in Denmark. Representatives of the developed and developing world alike attended the COP-15 summit in Copenhagen, debating how best to combat climate change. Ogilvy Earthʼs Hopenhagen campaign, charged by the UN, is designed to give people from all over the world a chance to show their desire for action to be taken. The 6.2m petitions may have played a part in the ensuing (albeit diluted) accord reached.
As Zeitgeist composes this article in the rugged environs of a remote WPP outpost, a radio station is playing Bachʼs Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. If intelligent life were to ever intercept the Voyager spacecraft jettisoned into space all those years ago, this piece of music would be the first thing they would hear. Though we can only hope for something to come of that mission, there are
pressing things on our planet that do require immediate action. Sometimes all that is necessary is to speak up and be heard. The alternative, as Niemöller pointed out, is surely far worse:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.