MyBO is often credited in mainstream media with helping build Obama's remarkable volunteer operation. At the same time, the conventional wisdom among webbies is that internal social networks don't work. Nobody wants to create yet another profile (particularly on a site with such a limited audience), and best to concentrate your energies on existing social networks like Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn.
My initial runthrough found many ways in which MyBO failed to live up to the hype, including:
- The friending feature, which is at the core of most social networks, is nearly useless. I may have been a stranger in a strange land, but I couldn't find anyone on the site whom I'd have liked to "friend." By contrast, today's nichiest social networks, like Brightkite, Mento, and FriendFeed, make it easy to find dozens of people you already know by offering a contact importer (where you import your Gmail/Yahoo/AOL/etc. address books to see who else is already online). Chris Hughes, MyBO's primary manager (and Facebook co-founder) only has 153 friends, the network average for all of Facebook.
- User blogs seems like kind of a throwaway feature. There is a single page with the latest posts in reverse chronological order, and that's pretty much it in terms of discoverability -- no posts in the sidebar of every MyBO page or latest comments as in Drupal/Scoop/SoapBlox. There have also only been 11,460 user blog posts off a base of over 800,000 user accounts, suggesting most people don't waste their time with maintaining a blog on the site. By contrast, in the first two weeks of The Next Right we've produced 480 user blogs from 806 registered users, a more than 1 to 2 ratio of user blogs to users.
- Personal fundraising pages are a really nice touch -- but not a game-changer in terms of money raised. The largest groups on the site had only raised in the hundreds of dollars for Obama. Even if we're charitable and allow $1 million raised through all such pages, that's a drop in the bucket compared to the tens of millions raised through e-mail, the website, and Google AdWords landing pages. This may be an example of the vaunted "long tail" being a great talking point but little more. People still find it easiest to give based on a direct appeal from the top.
Despite all this, My.BarackObama.com still works, and it's not because recreated the features of a social network. If they've succeeded, it's because they've harkened back to the early days of the web, to the primary way that the online grassroots connected with each other before blogs: e-mail groups.
Groups are probably MyBO's most powerful feature, with over 16,000 of them created. Most crucially, there are 6,639 local Obama groups. You won't see many mega-groups of the "Million Strong" variety. But you will see local activist groups in virtually every state -- often at the county and town level -- with hundreds of members each. Bucks County for Obama, Colorado Springs for Obama, Philly for Obama, and Tucson for Obama are just a few that reach that threshold.
When one joins the groups, it's not just a casual connection. You are automatically opted in for a discussion list a la a Yahoo or a Google group, the underlying feature set of which has not changed since the late '90s. In fact the title of this post is a throwback to that era, to the eGroups service (that later became Yahoo Groups) that I used to create the Bush 2000 mailing list that is still in existence today. This isn't rocket science. This stuff been around for more than a decade.
For group creators, the ability to mass message all your group's members is the key value proposition behind social networking groups. This why groups with up to 1,200 members on Facebook are useful and can get a response as powerful as e-mail -- but you turn into a pumpkin once you reach 1,200 and messaging is shut off.
MyBO is even more powerful because the messaging is not one-way -- it's a community where anyone can reply. And the messages contain useful information for the local activist -- reminders about local events, news from activists campaigning for delegate slots, even links to on-message videos -- all in the most familiar format available: e-mail. I've reproduced a sample message from my local Falls Church for Obama group below.
When you think about it, this is the kind of networking feature that it makes sense for campaigns to offer. Unlike a Facebook, your sense of connection to an e-group is not tied to the underlying technology but to the group itself. It doesn't matter as much if it's a Yahoo Group, a Google Group, or an Obama group, just as long as the right people are on it. By building it, you're not competing with a platform with millions of users, but for groups of hundreds.
Hosting it on the campaign site also weeds out the non-Obama groups you'd find at a Google or a Yahoo. This is useful to the user. And it directs people to locally based activism. That's smart.