April 20th, 2009
Chatting with InnoTech keynote Rahaf Harfoush about Obama’s use of social media
This Thursday, Rahaf Harfoush, Associate Director of the Global Cooperation Initiative at the World Economic Forum and part of the Obama campaign‘s social media team, will deliver the keynote for InnoTech, one of the Silicon Forest’s premier business and technology innovation conferences.
The keynote will be a great opportunity to hear Rahaf’s insights into how the Obama campaign embraced social media to affect political change—and will likely cause you to reassess your use of social media. No doubt, her talk will also include an early glimpse of some of the themes she’ll approach in Yes We Did: An Inside Look at How Social Media Built the Obama Brand, her upcoming book.
I had the opportunity to send Rahaf a few questions ahead of her arrival, and she was kind enough to take some time to answer. Here’s what we covered:
How did you get started in social media?
I have always loved technology. I guess I inherited it from my dad who is an avid science fiction junkie and technology always seems to represent unlimited potential and opportunity. I’m fascinated by how we use the web to interact and collaborate with each other. I love people and I love information and social media is the perfect combination of the two.
I don’t really remember when I got into social media, but I do remember it was before we called it social media. ;)
What brought you to the Obama campaign?
I was on the research and writing team for Don Tapscott’s book Grown Up Digital, and I was responsible for gathering research on technology, young people and the political process. My research took me to the very talented Chris Hughes, Obama’s Director of Internal Organizing who was designing a social network for the campaign.
I interviewed him and we hit it off. I was really inspired by what they were doing in Chicago and asked Chris if there was anyway that I could help. One thing led to another and I went down to Chicago for the last few months of the campaign as a full time volunteer. It was an awesome, empowering, thrilling experience.
Prior to your efforts, the strongest US online political campaign was championed by supporters of Howard Dean. What, if anything, did you learn from Dean’s efforts that informed the Obama campaign?
I think the Obama campaign heavily refined a lot of the strategies initially pioneered by Dean.
Dean was the first to use social networks (like Meetup) to organize supporters and start building the beginning of an online campaign infrastructure. He was also one of the first to experiment with online donations, particularly small amount donations.
The one main thing the campaign built on was the need for all of that online organizing to translate into offline action. This was where Dean’s campaign faltered, online enthusiasm did not turn into tangible votes or on-the-ground support.
Ultimately, everything the Obama campaign did online reinforced the need for offline organizing. Blog posts, contests, house parties, canvassing events the emphasis was always on getting supporters to get out of their house and into their communities on behalf of Barack.
(Prefacing this with the fact that a bunch of Portland people were essential to the development of the Obama iPhone app… ;) ) In your opinion, what was the most unique use of social media in the Obama campaign?
Even if I didn’t know that, I would have to say the iPhone application. It was an extremely innovative foray into the yet untapped area of mobility. It effectively turned every iPhone into a fully functional field office. It allowed the campaign to stay connected to supporters in a very intimate way and ensured that they received the most up to date information.
That is very powerful to me. I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface on what we can do with mobile.
If I had to pick a favorite social network for Portland, it would be Twitter, hands down. In both your work for the World Economic Forum and your personal life, within which social media site(s) do you find yourself most comfortable/engaged?
Twitter is my favorite too! [Editor: She's @rahafharfoush.] I love my twitter community and I always find myself going to them for their opinions and advice.
For example, some people at the Forum were interested in identifying some thought leaders in particular industries. I asked my Twitter community and within minutes and over fifteen names of experts that had come recommended by people I trust and respect. You just can’t beat the speed or quality of information.
I am weary of this sudden mainstream appeal of Twitter, particularly those people that focus only on the number of followers. For me, it’s all about meaningful conversations. I’d take that over a big crowd any day!
Finally, a softball. I know you love to travel and explore. Have you been to Portland before? What would you like to experience while you’re in town?
I have never been to Portland before! I heard you have a beautiful waterfront. If the weather cooperates I would love to sit in a nice café with my new kindle and catch up on some reading and relax.
Thanks, again, to Rahaf for taking the time to provide those responses. I’ll be looking forward to seeing her speak on Thursday. If you’d like to join me, please register to attend InnoTech, this Wednesday and Thursday.
(Photo credit: Jesse Morgan. Used with permission.)