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From “Hope” to Spam: How Obama Lost the Digital Generation

EDITOR’S NOTE: After Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, many predicted that his online campaign—especially his digital outreach to young people—was the beginning of a new way of raising money and winning elections. What happened? To find out, New America Media interviewed Bay Area young people who were extremely involved in the Obama campaign two years ago but are less engaged in 2010, as well as analysts and activists who are trying to understand what went wrong.

Zev Karlin-Neumann is vice president of political affairs for Campaigns at Stanford Democrats, the largest political group on campus.

When Obama was running for president, everyone was interested in donating and getting engaged. Using social networks and online tools to mobilize people was effective only because this sense of euphoria already existed. Plus, people had to make a simpler choice during the presidential elections and there was a definitive D-Day when things came to an end. But now, it seems endless.

Only a few people get excited about policy issues, even those issues that directly affect their lives. Without enthusiasm, it’s very hard to get people to open their wallets and donate. And even the most jazzed up social marketing strategies fall flat without this.

Askia Tariq West is an African-American and Muslim who recently graduated from Stanford and now works for a major consulting firm in McLean, Virginia.

We thought we were changing the world; now we know better. Few races this year, if any, have the historical significance of the 2008 presidential election. In addition, we’ve been disheartened by the vitriolic opposition to everything Obama’s tried to do and disillusioned by Obama’s shortcomings.

In 2008, social media and new media mobilization had a certain cool factor. Generation Y felt a special ownership of social and new media campaigns . Now, even old-guard, old-fogie insider candidates have online campaigns, and it’s just not as hip to engage people [using social media] anymore.

It feels like there is a wave of hate and uncertainty and fear sweeping the country, and social media –online mobilization –lends itself to hopeful tenor buzz rather than preparing for the worst, as many of us are.

Sarahi Constantine was a student leader for the 2008 Obama campaign. She will graduate from Stanford University next spring.

I have stopped reading all the emails from the President’s office. Some of my friends directly put those messages in their spam folders. I haven’t reached that point yet. I simply push the emails off to a separate folder to read when I have time, but I haven’t gotten around to them yet.

There needs to be more transparency for where money goes in campaign donations. When Obama was running for president, we knew all the funds would be utilized for his campaign. Now that clarity is missing in other campaigns.

In 2008, Angela Petrella organized a dance party fundraiser for presidential candidate Barak Obama at McSweeney’s publishing house. Over 100 people attended, each donating $100. A total of $15,000 was raised for the campaign.

“I’m middle class, so $100 was a lot of money, but giving money away almost felt empowering. Every single person donated $100 dollars because we wanted [Obama to win so badly]. I was willing to eat ramen noodles for a month, but how long can a person do that?

If it’s just one presidential election, I can focus energy on just that…but then there was the Haiti [relief] outpour. When I receive email after email for so many causes, I don’t get inspired to do anything. I just feel annoyed and indifferent.

Tristan O’Tierney, along with nine friends, created the Obama ’08 iPhone application, with a “Call Friend” feature that automatically pulled the phone numbers of iPhone users’ friends in key swing states. The app was used to make 39,802 volunteer calls.

I’m not sure why young people aren’t trying to go after the Tea Party movement more. In my case, I haven’t had the time.

The Tea Party movement is centered on misinformation and negative speech, neither of which I’d really like to acknowledge because doing so gives them the very attention they want.

Jamilah King is the News Editor of Colorlines.com. She frequently writes on race and youth issues.

What appealed to folks in 2008 was that the outreach was carefully targeted and effective. And that was largely because the Obama campaign provided us with an alternative message to what we often heard in the mainstream press, or from other campaigns.

I think the genius of social networking, and why it became so popular, was because it allowed for people to control their interactions and the amount of information they received. Now, it’s different. Social networks— especially Facebook— have become places that are more about selling products and ideas than interacting with the select few you want to be in touch with.

[The emails from the campaigns this year have been] a bit too wonky to make an impact on people who aren’t plugged in. Typically, the emails got to people who already know enough to be engaged.

Now that Obama’s in office, he should be more concerned with creatively controlling the overall narrative rather than encouraging users to post buttons on people’s Facebook walls. It’s true that he’s battling against the Tea Party and Fox News for the minds of voters, but the [administration’s] message seems to have become more mechanic than passionate. And that goes totally against the framework that got him elected in the first place.

Maxwell Szabo is a San Francisco native who graduated from UC Santa Cruz. He is president of San Francisco Young Democrats.

The main difference between the 2008 election and the midterm election is the top of the ticket. It was awe-inspiring Obama versus John McCain. Though McCain was a really nice man, he didn’t appeal to young people.

Now look at Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman. I’m strongly convinced that Jerry Brown’s positions are health care, the environment, and the economy are much more favorable for young people. But people in my generation didn’t know who Jerry Brown was or what issues he stands for. I wasn’t even alive during his first term as governor. Young people are most interested in what will happen with Prop. 23 and Prop 19.

[Still, our organization has] grown tremendously since 2008. A lot of people got interested in politics after the election. We’ve done better in fundraising, and 200 new people have joined our organization over the last two years. We are banging on doors and going out to the community. We dropped 30,000 hangers in Districts 2, 8, and 10.

Cheryl Contee blogs under the pseudonym “Jill Tubman” for Jack & Jill Politics, a site started in 2006 to provide diverse viewpoints of tax-paying, hard-working, engaged and patriotic African-American citizens.

I don’t think the youth voice has gone quiet since 2008, but rather they have moved on to other ideas and causes.

Young people have been hit hard by the recession, and it’s difficult to focus on politics when you’re working three jobs to make ends meet. I think we’ll see young people flex their muscles again in the 2010 general election.

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