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« Forrester Groundswell Awards: How we picked the winners | Main | Tell Obama to embrace the groundswell. Now. »

November 05, 2008

Barack Obama, will you tap the groundswell?

by Josh Bernoff

Barackobama Like many of you, I watched the election last night, and watched Barack Obama's acceptance speech. This speech capped off an election in which Obama demonstrated inspirational leadership and the power to organize and take advantage of a true groundswell. Groundswell means, literally, a rise in the ocean. Figuratively, it typically refers to a political movement in which people come together around a common cause. Could there be any better example than this?

Through my.barackobama.com, through Facebook and MySpace and YouTube, and through clever outreach to his supporters, Obama's campaign has truly energized its fans and turned the power of their passion to spreading his messages and gaining the votes he needed. In this country balanced on the knife edge on so many issues, I think it is no exaggeration to say that Barack Obama owes his victory to the effectiveness of his campaign's groundswell Internet strategy.

What now?

Barack Obama faces perhaps the most complex set of problems to face a president in the last fifty years, from terrorism to a teetering economy to a deficit that scares the crap of out me for my children's future. He has the power to inspire people behind the solutions he may come up with. He's clearly intelligent. But does he have the humility to gather those solutions from the popular groundswell that elected him?

If Starbucks can source ideas from the groundswell -- if Mattel can learn from its mistakes by connecting with ordinary people -- if Hershey's can get people to try new chocolates with Internet word of mouth, can Barack Obama's government tap the same sources of energy?

I call on president-elect Obama to create a community of committed Americans to discuss the solutions to the problems that face us. I call on him to designate a US Community Manager, with a small staff, to moderate and harvest those discussions to solve the country's problems. Forget polls. With a few million people in my.america.gov, Obama will be able to tap into the world's largest focus group. Communities are cheap, compared to most of what the government does. Create a space for the brightest people you know; use them to attract the best ideas. And better yet, use this energized community to sell those ideas to America.

Presidents are powerful, but the reality is that politics requires compromise. But politicians with the people on their side usually win out. With a community behind him, Obama will need no further mandate. And he'll look smarter with a few thousand idea generators behind him.

Or he could just do things the way people in Washington have always done them, in secret, watered down, inefficiently, and in the most costly way possible. That's never worked all that well, and it's been working even more poorly lately.

It's late, and tiredness has overcome the usual constraints on my idealism. I promise to be more reasonable in the morning. In the meantime, how about giving the groundswell a chance, President-Elect Obama?

This post has now appeared in the Boston Globe. Also see my update about Obama's change.gov.


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Are you going to give Barack a Groundswell award? He probably deserves it.


Excellent blog!! I couldn't agree more - this is a country "By the people, for the people" and for the first time in modern history, we have an opportunity to actually let the people speak, to listen, and to act.

Josh Bernoff

Wow, great comments. Kevin, very well put, I will have to steal that line from you in speeches!

Brian, Barack's campaign would deserve a Forrester Groundswell award based on what is obviously the biggest "measurable result" of any social media campaign. What category? Energizing? Social Impact? Country transformation??

They don't get it because (1) they didn't apply (they apparently were busy with something else during the awards period) and (2) their measurable result wasn't visible until today, too late for the judging. But if they apply for the 2009 awards they'll have a huge edge -- especially if they do what I suggested . . .

Ben K

Chief of Trolls!


Actually Josh, literally a groundswell is about earth movement (thus "ground" :) rather than water. In the water it's just a swell.

Gee, swell.

Jonathan Litwack

This whole idea reminds me of what Ross Perot was proposing nearly 20 years ago, except nobody was too familiar with the notion of online communities at the time. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-democracy

Funny how things come back... Even if it's two decades late.

Josh Bernoff

@Rotkapchen I normally wouldn't pick nits on language, but groundswell is a word I care about. And it's not about the ground, strangely enough.

From Merriam Webster:
1. a broad deep undulation of the ocean caused by an often distant gale or seismic disturbance
2: a rapid spontaneous growth (as of political opinion)

Jake McKee

I'm always glad to see that both of us are thinking along the same lines. I've been blogging about the social collabrative nature of his campaign too.

But this post is wonderful. Where do I submit my resume?

Skip Shuda

I thought it was telling that Obama acknowledged that winning the election was NOT the change we seek... it is only a chance to do so. Supporters received an email saying, "We'll be in touch shortly". His focus on community service, the strength of his campaign's amazing ground game and his openness to suggestions makes a perfect storm for using the Groundswell. As one Hillary supporter said, "It's hard to run against a movement."

Josh - your call to action is spot on!

Josh Weinberger

Nicely put. I like my.america.gov -- looks like Obama's Change.gov will launch today (11/6/08). http://snurl.com/changegov
[site address is valid as of 8aET, but requires authorization to enter.]
And CNET is reporting some other members of the tech transition team have been named. http://snurl.com/565hq

Ann Handley

Josh -- Great post. I wrote something similar today at the HuffingtonPost:

(You know, I try not to comment with a link, but our posts relate to one another. I apologize nonetheless...)

I think it's imperative to tap those sources of energy, and I'm heartened to see that Change.Gov is a move toward that.

Angelo Fernando


Great ideas and call to action. He seems savvy enough to reach out this way. From the feedback I've been getting there's the global groundswell that's waiting to be tapped, too. On a separate note, have you noticed what the State Department is doing at Briefing 2.0 YouTube?(http://tinyurl.com/6qaeml)

Therese Prentice - Social Networking Queen/Joint Venture Broker


Outstanding post! I would like to call this Presidency 2.0. We are going to see a truer sense of democracy where the people will help lead the movement for change in America. This presidential journey is and will be an amazing case study of the Groundswell.


He's done it! http://www.change.gov/
I get chills everytime I look at the page! It's so exciting!


There already is a system for this. I understand that many people like Facebook and Starbucks myidea...

But the US government has had this for years. In addition to sending emails or letters to the President, you have local elected officials of all stripes who are responsible for addressing your concerns. You don't need a idea-gathering website to call your congressman and share an idea. You don't need one to schedule an appointment with your senator in DC. And so on.

Our government works just fine. We vote and we get what we voted for. We like it, we re-elect. We don't, we kick them out.

There is a certain deliberativeness built in to our system. For good reason. I'm not so sure I want my President responding to real-time ideas generated by the masses.



This has been a personal dream of mine for almost a decade since we started Brightidea.com in 1999.

We sent the Obama camp a note the day Change.gov launched and offered to provide our software pro bono.

That way they would not only have the idea portal but a back-end system to track the ideas all the way through to realization...total visibility.

Here is a 3D visualization of similiar work with did with Cisco, they collected ideas from 100+ COUNTRIES.

Hopefully they will reach out if they are serious about listening to people's ideas.

Matt Greeley
Founder and CEO

Stop Smoking

Great post! Well, he's certainly the guy for this. Presidency 2.0, as another comment said - luv that!


Hey Josh, great post. Have you seen PolicyPitch.com? Policypitch.com provides a crowd-powered platform for individuals to "pitch" ideas for local policy change, allows citizens to engage each other and collaborate, and provides tools to transform the online communication into real world action. By engaging citizens on important issues at the local level, the service represents a critical step in participatory democracy and government 2.0.

Here's the challenge that President-elect Obama faces.

People *love* my.barackobama.com. Supporters love it because it worked - it got Obama elected. Analysts love it - it's truly a great example of social media, put to extraordinary use, and a sign (finally!) that a politician "gets" it. And even Republicans, grudgingly, admire it as an extraordinary achievement.

That being said -- my.barackobama.com had one use, and that was to win the election.

It had several things going for it that any future social media initiative probably won't have: (1) there were low expectations; (2) it was able to grow organically over time; (3) it could be partisan, reflect the intent of its architects, and not worry about third parties poking their agenda into the mix; and (4) it fit hand-in-glove with Howard Dean's 50-State Strategy, whose contribution to my.barackobama.com's success deserves way more ink IMHO.

So -- any future Groundswell is going to have the expectations of (1) being *at least* as smart and successful as my.barackobama.com; (2) scaling immediately to accommodate the interest of not only the US, but of the eagerly watching world (see also "Europeana"); (3) providing a fair and balanced perspective, reflecting the needs of all Americans, not just Obama supporters; and (4) "playing nice" with existing .gov infrastructure and minimizing the vitriol that seems to be so pervasive on political sites. (I had launched an eventstream of the accredited Democratic bloggers at http://www.dncbloggers.com -- the "hate" comment problem is absolutely clear when you deep dive into the various blogs.)

Any one of those challenges, taken alone, would be a Herculean task. Perhaps it is a far better thing to underpromise and overdeliver on expectations. For that reason, I have no problem with the way that the transition team is handling things.

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