Saturday, February 03, 2007

Facebook, Obama & the Future of Grassroots

Yesterday a few thousand souls turned out at George Mason University to hear Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) first political rally since announcing the formation of his presidential exploratory committee. Unremarkable you say? Well, what's interesting is that this event wasn't the product of political consultants, campaign operatives, or even the good Senator himself. According to the Washington Post, the event was organized and promoted through two groups of students who support Obama's run for the White House.

Last summer Meredith Segal was a rising junior at Bowdoin College in Maine. Her enthusiasm for Sen. Obama led to a Facebook group, Barack Obama for President (subsequently renamed "Students for Obama"). Yesterday, she took the podium in Fairfax to introduce him. Her group now counts more than 56,000 members. Another Facebook group of young people supporting his candidacy numbers a whopping 200,000. Segal and her compatriots are now working to transition from an online group to a true grassroots network with regional organizing and other networking tools (website, blog, etc.)

Young people have traditionally been considered low turnout voters largely disinterested in politics. In the grassroots world -- particularly for associations and other DC interest groups -- they are usually third class citizens. Afterthoughts. However, the times they are a changin'. The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement studies voting patterns among 18 - 24 year olds. Among their findings:

The Pew Charitable Trust found that in certain targeted districts the 2006 youth vote turnout more than doubled from '02 levels. This happened in 36 congressional districts ... more than the current Democratic majority in the House.

Could it be that young people can be mobilized as a significant element of a grassroots network or campaign if we use the right tools? Most grassroots campaigns mostly ignore students and young professionals. That's a mistake. A growing pool of data suggests these may be some of the most passionate advocates ... and they usually have time and energy to be engaged. Trouble is, we can't just throw the same old grassroots tools at them and expect results.

New tools can lead not only to more participation but also the kind of participation that launches a student from a New England campus computer to sharing the stage with a high-profile presidential candidate. What I'm saying is that they don't to just want to passively belong, they want to really engage.

Technology is certainly part of the answer to turning young people into grassroots activists. But, the real trick is the work Meredith Segal is trying to figure out right now: translating online interest into offline action.

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