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The world watches Obama to see if he’ll go viral, again

You can’t possibly have forgotten what the biggest social media sensation of 2008 was? If you answered “Yes we can”, you’re on the right track, even though you may not think so.

That’s right, folks 2012 is an election year in the US of A, and US politicians believe that it’s never to early to kick-off an election campaign. With still more than a year-and-a-half to go President Barack Obama has launched his re-election campaign in a flurry of social media activity. The big question is: will he recapture his status as a viral phenomenon?

On Monday 4 April, the president announced his candidacy for re-election on Twitter and Facebook and by cell phone texts and emails. There is also a video doing the rounds; a video which has already been torn to shreds by on-the-ball political satirists, including Jon Stewart, who hosts the Daily Show.

The actual campaign video (on YouTube with over 168 400 views), has gone viral (to a degree), but so has the video of Stewart’s bashing, and, unfortunately for Obama, so has a spoof video that was released as an April Fool’s joke by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The spoof video takes the form of a re-election clip, which means that the timing was incredible – incredibly lucky or unlucky depending on whose side you’re on.

2008 was a runaway success

In 2008, Obama was backed by enthusiastic, technical savvy campaign staff. He even had one of the founders of Facebook, Chris Hughes, on his side, for goodness sake. He wooed young voters, who are notoriously difficult to get to the polls, on MySpace, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. He exploited social media and broke new ground to the point where Arianna Hunffington, editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, said, “Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president. Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not have been the nominee.”

It helped that Obama was young, charming, good looking and supremely eloquent. People would listen to his speeches on YouTube and be motivated enough to seek out more information. They joined campaign volunteer groups in droves to support the vibrant, distinctly black, nominee.

But Obama wasn’t just personable and likeable and easy to relate to, he (or his team) had an intuitive understanding of how social media worked. More importantly, how the minds of social media users worked.

For starters he customised information to target individuals. He used online surveys, which were short and easy to complete. He followed these up with more in-depth (opt-in) email surveys, and because he’d already gained trust and generated a more than passing interest, a lot of people requested them. He was everywhere without being intrusive.

He energised America, he mobilised its youth and he gave hope to Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers. He was brilliant.

What will 2012 bring?

Unfortunately for Obama, he inherited a brand new world full of recessions, debt, unemployment and war. His golden tongue couldn’t protect him from the fact that he was in for a very, very rough time. His shine has faded. People expected miracles and he proved to be human. No one likes it when idols’ are revealed to be less than perfect.

In a lot of ways his crippled himself. One of the points that Stewart was particularly keen to harp on was his campaign promise to improve transparency in the White House, which steadily gave way to a closed doors and censorship. For instance, 194 pages of internal emails dealing with the Open Government Directive (i.e., government transparency) were censored. Worse, Obama won a Transparency Award, but the news wasn’t disclosed to the public ‘til after the fact.

The brand new Obama campaign video lacks the zip and pep that infused his first campaign. Stewart rightly points out that the people in the video look exhausted. It almost seems as though they are making excuses for him. For example, one woman says, “Unfortunately, President Obama is one person, plus he’s got a job. We’re paying him to do a job. So we can’t just say ‘Hey, can you just take some time off and get us all energised?’” Which is kind of what he did in 2008.

There is also a man, in his 50s or 60s, who says that he may not always agree with Obama, but he trusts him. Another woman says that there are still a lot of issues that need to be addressed, but they want Obama to be the person who addresses them.

So, definitely not the same energy as before.

But, people have responded well to his Twitter campaign, which like the Facebook, email and text communications, asks “Are You In?” So far, his 7.28 million Twitter follower seem to be very much in.

(By the way, if you’re “in” or interested in being “in” check out President Obama’s website, BarackObama.com, where you can even visit the store and pick up a travel mug or water bottle).

Breaking eggs and making omelettes

It’s early days yet. The campaign is what, two days old. He’s got (or will get) a new campaign manager, most of the staff is also new and fresh blood is often a good thing. Of course people will question the wisdom of changing a formula that worked, but, as it turns out, many of the people who worked with Obama in 2008 are currently busy with other projects. They were probably in great demand after he was elected.

He will, once again, leverage his support base to extend his reach and appeal to the masses. He will make people feel empowered and in control of their own destiny because that’s what he’s good at.

A key question remains: Social media has evolved a lot in the last two-odd years, during which Obama has been wrapped up in red tape and bureaucracy-speak so, does he still have what it takes to go viral and spread Obama-fever?

What do you think?

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