The Geeks Behind Obama's Web Strategy A group of Boston geeks helped Barack Obama turn the Web into the ultimate political machine. Will he use it now to reinvent government?
By David Talbot | January 8, 2009
On a February night nearly two years ago, a Boston computer programmer named Jascha Franklin-Hodge was entertaining a first date over dinner at Shanti, in Dorchester, when his cellphone rang, displaying a Chicago number. Bolting from his plate of korma and dashing outside, he heard good news from the fledgling Barack Obama campaign. Franklin-Hodge and his squad of Web designers and programmers at Blue State Digital -- a small start-up in a creaky-floored loft office on Congress Street in the Seaport District
-- had been hired to build much of Obama for America's digital backbone: the interactive and social-networking features of my.barackobama.com, or MyBO.
MyBO would become the hub of the campaign's online efforts to organize supporters, channel their energies effectively, enable them to call millions of voters, and, of course, collect donations. Today President-elect Obama has a new soapbox, change.gov, the official transition website (also built by Blue State Digital). It features such novelties as Cabinet nominees giving YouTube replies to comments posted by average Americans. The extent to which Obama goes on to use the Web -- as a portal to release more government data for public consumption, as an instrument for rallying Americans to advance his agenda, and to bypass traditional media -- is yet to be seen. But his campaign platform promised Obama would use technology to create "a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation." When Obama takes the oath of office nine days from now, his hallmark is likely to be a massive use of the Web.
He certainly took online campaigning to a new level. His e-campaign included not only MyBO, of course, but also the powerful leveraging of everything from text-messaging to YouTube video propagation to supporter networks on platforms like Facebook -- and on a scale that dwarfed what was achieved by Hillary Clinton or John McCain (for example, Obama had more than 3.4 million Facebook supporters, six times McCain's number). Of course, that night at Shanti, all that was clear to Franklin-Hodge was that a polished but long-shot junior senator would step to a Springfield, Illinois, lectern nine days later, on February 10, 2007, to announce his candidacy. Franklin-Hodge -- a baritone-voiced MIT dropout, now 29 years old -- had been around this block once before; he was part of a core group of geeks who built the then-novel online apparatus for the Howard Dean campaign. But 2003 was still the Dark Ages for online social networking. The Dean tools for setting up meetings and donating were a little rough. More important, fewer Americans were comfortable using the Internet to form communities and to organize. (In 2003, Facebook didn't exist in its present form but today has more than 40 million American accounts; it seems every other Joe Sixpack has a Facebook profile.)