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How Social Computing Elected the US President



The last chapter in my new book is called “The Next Big Thing”, and it’s all about the fact that being human means being social. It is built into our brains and evolution to live together with others, and to be very influenced by our “pack” or group. History shows us that whatever technology there is, we will find a way to use it to communicate – to make it social.

Look at the history:

The printing press allowed people to communicate via the written word in a way that was much faster. Before the printing press each book had to be copied by hand, a task that sometimes took years. The printing press brought that time down to days, and in some instances, hours. That meant that books could be created by the thousands and more for people to read. But that wasn’t the main use of the printing press. Individuals and small groups used it to start to communicate quickly. Much of the early use of the printing press was not long books, but short pamphlets or even one page “bills” like bulletins. The printing press was truly a form of mass communication.

Same thing with telephones. When the first telephones were first being developed they were viewed as an updated version of the telegraph. There was no plan for people to have telephones in their homes. The assumption was that the telephones would be in the telegraph offices and be used to convey messages from telegraph office to telegraph office (and from there the message would be written out and delivered).

Same thing with cell phones. I was talking one day with a client at Motorola who told me that years and years ago his group at Motorola invented the cell phone, and then put it on the shelf where it sat for years. “Why?”, I asked. “Why didn’t you bring it to market right away?” He answered: “Well, we thought we’d only be making about ten of them. Not much of a market.” “Ten of them? Why did you think that?”, I asked. His reply was “We figured each head of state for major nations would have one. You know, the President of the United States, the head guy in Russia, and so on. We thought they’d use it to prevent a world war. I had no idea people would use it to call home before leaving work to see if they should pick up milk!”

And now it’s happened once again with Barack Obama’s election as US President. I participated in the campaign at my local level and was struck immediately by the campaign’s use of technology. Millions of people in the US were tracked in a data base that used buying patterns, magazine subscriptions, and whatever other data that can be purchased, to figure out whether they were likely to be an Obama supporter, a McCain supporter or undecided. Then legions of volunteers were sent out to knock on doors and conduct a short survey. The results of that survey were fed back in to the database. Algorithms were revised and new lists created that got tested again. This continued every week for weeks and weeks. The campaign used this data to decide where to target, who to call, which doors to knock on (focus on the undecided). At the same time the viral power of Facebook was put to work. Technology was used to socially collaborate and network. From campaign contribution, to volunteering, to creating a buzz, technology and social collaboration on the web had a major part in electing a President.

People will always push the envelope to bend the available technology to purposes that extend and improve communication and the opportunity to be social. It always leaves me wishing I could see ahead and predict the next social use of technology. Every time I find myself saying, “of course, why didn’t I see that coming!”


One response to “How Social Computing Elected the US President”

  1. Mary Grossnickle Avatar
    Mary Grossnickle

    Yes, we love being social. And we need to look for the techniques that can make an impersonal technology seem more personal. I got an email from Barack Obama just before he went to Grant Park. It began, “Dear Mary.” Did I care that the same message went to thousands of people? No, I cared that the President-Elect called me by name. Social networking works because we see it as personal, when so much in the world of technology is not.

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