What LinkedIn’s Reorganization and OFA 2.0 Means for Politech Online

Many internet theorists speak of social networks online as a ‘map of the relationships between individuals.’ Politech thinkers and online organizers like myself, have taken these principles and used them to inform the social software we built for campaigns and political advocacy organizations with mixed success.

Things are going to have to change.

The ways in which Obama for America (OFA) 2.0 is phasing in it’s reinvention should serve to teach politech strategists that we all must rethink our orientation to social networks… but it won’t.

Barack Obama’s social network was an outlier whose success will likely not be replicated despite a multitude of copycat campaigns, pushed by uncreative and dishonest strategists who convince the bosses that they can bring back the Obama lightning.

Consider: a social network named MyBarackObama – clearly built around enabling personal affinity for Barack Obama – one that encouraged users to write about how Barack Obama made them feel even, was able to convince the nodes of the network and those outside the network (press / non-active citizens) that it wasn’t actually about promoting Barack Obama.

The campaign was instead about “us”… and if you really needed to be reminded, it was quick to point out that Obama was a different kind of candidate, so then, at it’s most base, MyBO was a different kind of cult of personality.

Some suggested it was a cult of personal empowerment and self-help.

But really, who cares? It was everything it needed to be for everyone it needed to touch in order for the principal to win. And he did. Importantly though, I don’t think the voice and thrust of that internal Social Network can be duplicated any time soon for a few major reasons:

  • The ‘different kind of candidate’ card has now been played for the entire nation to see and digest.
  • Obama, with his astounding celebrity status, and high favorability back in 2006 didn’t need to orient his SocNet into getting his message and name out. This is NOT common. Most candidates will have the opposite problem and will need to orient their operations into combatting that problem.
  • The whole ‘candidate as a movement’ thing is exceedingly rare and increasingly difficult to sustain in our cynical age.
  • Apropos to LinkedIn’s reorganization, the way we relate to social networks is becoming more refined and purposeful.

I am rethinking political social networks heavily considering LinkedIn’s example, because I believe that the failure of most social software to deliver hot networks to the polls or to the barricades outside Congress, has less to do with poorly architected software (although much of the successful political software is janky and stupid) than it has to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of what politics requires in relation to how network-centric systems can serve politicking.

Successful politicking is about action not conversation. I used to be all about how Conversation was king. But what was the point? In my strategic frameworks, the object came later, at the end of pre-planned conversation sequences that were scripted to “arrive” at the object. Maybe the object was a vote, or a civic action, or the purchase of a butter substitute, didn’t matter.

It was a fine idea for reluctant activists with a great deal of time for kevetching. But ROI was too low. Whatever the object eventually was, the fish ladder of greater participation was wrong.

Social networks that that are object-centered are a better match for politics online than most of what we have seen previously – which has been mostly based on an understanding of ‘social as interpersonal.’

Good social networks are not the most personal networks – if it were, Friendster would still rule. My old adage “conversation is king” leaves aside the object – the subject of conversation – the meaning. It’s all about object-centered networks and actor-network models for me now.

The difference between how we design software for these two kinds of networks is vast.

Network sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina, activity theorists, actor-network theorists like Arthur Tatnall, and post-ANT academics, all write about ‘socio-material networks’, or ‘activities’ or ‘practices’ instead of ‘networking’. These folks correctly make the case for object-centered sociality. Actor-network theorists consider the action of the network itself as an object central to any system.

ANT maps relations that are simultaneously material (between things) and ‘semiotic’ (between concepts). It assumes that many relations are both material and ‘semiotic’ (e.g. the interactions in a bank involve both people and their ideas, and technologies. Together these form a single network).
Actor-network theory tries to explain how material-semiotic networks come together to act as a whole (e.g. a bank is both a network and an actor that hangs together, and for certain purposes acts as a single entity). As a part of this it may look at explicit strategies for relating different elements together into a network so that they form an apparently coherent whole. wiki.

How these scientists understand what nodes in a network Do and How they behave carries valuable lessons for those of us who create social software or communication strategies for communities of political action. Especially in a post-MyBO online world where the old tricks won’t work.

Actor-centric networks and object-centered theory is an evolution from how most online politicos understand social networking and the read/write web. The goal previously being encouraging discussion (and maybe investment in the idea of the collective’s strength) but not ‘to the barricades’ level direct action. We have to reorient our networks.

That LinkedIn’s clever construction caused an early crisis of purpose – namely, users competing for rank as the grand poobahs of sociality – is indicative of how common this misinterpretation of ‘social network’ was and remains even among the brainy experts. LinkedIn’s hooks for increased participation (e.g. ranking users by number of connections) worked for a while as users substituted ‘the game’ for an actual object.

But because the “surrogate object” was not designed into the funding of the website, LinkedIn scrambled to re-orient users around a new object: their actual jobs, resumes and all.

We see a similar re-orientation on OFA 2.0. The object is no longer our BO, it’s our Healthcare Reform, our EFCA, our Education Reform, our Energy Bill. These things are branded with Obama’s headshot but they are things, finally.

Flickr got it right. Flickr makes photos into objects of sociality on its network. YouTube facilitates video clips as objects of sociality. Eventful.com, Upcoming.org, focus on events as central objects.

The nascent social network frameworks that tried to have “place” as the object of sociality (e.g. iFob, brightkite, Nokia’s Plazes) are all susceptible to the common traps of social network facilitation: self-promotion, stalking, avoidance but they are on the right track.

As PDA’s increasingly track our proximity to physical spaces and each other, this is going to be extremely interesting from an online organizer’s perspective. In addition to what killed Dodgeball, this is also one of the more clever and value-added usages of Twitter that I’ve seen; Checking in on who from your buddy list is currently in a specific bar or other ‘third place.’ Relatedly, Jaiku application ideas are on my whiteboard right now.

Facebook’s public Wall, with it’s displays of hooks into a multitude of social interactions, most centering on objects: photos, videos, events, ambient awareness alerts, whatever you wanted – that was the key to FB’s success in my opinion.

Basically, it’s not about encouraging discussion. It’s about owning the object of discussion.

So, where do political social networking sites fit into this world? Largely, they don’t and it’s our fault:

  • We need to construct more social networking systems for politech that are not based around building an army of fans.
  • We should never encourage a circling of the wagons.
  • We need to architect our networks outward.
  • We should not use our network to so obviously build our email list.
  • If your supporters are talking to each other about their feelings – even if they are feelings that you inspire – they are not helping you win.
  • Our systems should facilitate subtle evangelism into thousands of object-centered networks.

For example, we don’t need to build “Lindy Hoppers for Candidate Jones” be it a group in our internal SocNet, or as a nicely-branded subsite. No, what Advocacy2.0 needs is fewer internal SocNets and more full-time network weavers. We need human staffers who use a websystem that helps them spread and track the pings and the status of the objects of the conversations.

A campaign’s network weavers should be empowered to find a few good candidates in niche social scenes to be surrogates. Network weavers should help these surrogates spread your message, and recruit for your events while leveraging their own hard-earned social capital inside those external object-oriented social networking websites.

One forum post by a respected dancer in Yehoodi that spreads your message and drops a few links is worth more than the money you’ll waste on “Lindy Hoppers for Candidate Jones” vaporware subsite or SocNet hobby group.

What used to be built as your internal social networks should actually be a tool that your weavers use elsewhere.

This has been blogged before, but it needs to be repeated because as somebody who designed social networking systems oriented in opposition to MyBO, I’m seeing a class of candidates and advocacy organizations falling for the ‘do what Obama did’ pitch. It will not work.

I believe that while this is a strategy that can win some primaries, it fails my test – a litmus inspired by Howard Dean. It doesn’t expand the voter pool enough beyond the grasstops and therefore it doesn’t markedly grow the Democratic brand. It doesn’t aim to increase civic participation among disaffected and disenfranchised. A class of campaigns built on last cycles’ technology doesn’t democratize political systems sufficiently with large infusions of fresh blood and new ideas.

Ultimately, I fear that internal Social Networking cult-of-personality systems with old online community-building strategies based in blogger ethics of conversation generation will feed into a political force that ensures safe incumbents for years to come.

That is not what I fight for. Not even when the incumbent is a Democrat.

[For a much more elaborate academic argument about object-centered sociality, see the chapter on ‘Objectual Practice’ by Karin Knorr Cetina in “The practice turn in contemporary theory”]