The new Obama administration has wasted little time in getting its agenda out. The whitehouse.gov website underwent a makeover at midday, the time of the inauguration. The site contained several pre-written blog posts, all date-stamped Tue, January 20, 12:01 p.m. EST. Jimmy Orr, who directed website operations during Bush 43’s first term, believes the site resembles Obama’s campaign site which he says is no bad thing. “President Obama ran an excellent e-campaign and his website was very user-friendly, as is this one,” he said. “The site is attractive, modern looking, easy to navigate, free of clutter, and makes an excellent use of photos.”
But what the site does not yet have is a personal Obama touch. In his influential PressThink blog NYU Professor of Journalism Jay Rosen advises Obama to write the blog himself. “Don’t start a blog and make it an extension of the press release,” cautioned Rosen. “You’d be worse off, with a lame blog and a blown start in the race to be smart online.”
But so far Obama has been silent online. One person who has introduced himself on the blog is Macon Phillips. Phillips described himself the Director of New Media for the White House. He says that the three new media priorities are communication, transparency and participation. To these ends, the new administration has set up a briefing room about presidential events and public statements, a policy agenda, and a feedback form for contact. Phillips says WhiteHouse.gov is “just the beginning of the new administration's efforts to expand and deepen this online engagement”.
According to LinkedIn, Macon Phillips is a director of Strategy & Communications at Washington DC-based Blue State Digital which specialises in Internet election strategies. The company has strong Democratic Party roots and was founded in 2004 by former staffers of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign that year. In early 2007 the Obama campaign hired the company to provide technology, communication and media services. They were instrumental in giving Obama the platform to attract a social network of 850,000 people and raise $200 million online. BusinessWeek called them “Obama’s secret digital weapon”.
And as the New York Times noted in December, Obama campaign’s communications strategy was predicated in part on what it called “an aggressive indifference” to the usual media insider set. The campaign mastered new political media including a vast database of e-mail addresses, discussion boards, web sites, blogs, YouTube videos and text messaging. It was reflected in the number of friends and followers Obama collected in social networks. In MySpace for instance, Obama held a clear lead, with 844,927 friends compared to McCain's 219,404 (up to November 2008). In the same period he also trounced McCain on Twitter with 118,108 followers compared to the Republican candidate’s 4,942. Blue State Digital could take a lot of credit for these results.
Although Macon Phillips wasn’t one of Blue State Digital’s founders, it is likely he will bring a lot of the company’s expertise to the White House’s online presence. Phillips says the goal of the revamped site is to give people a better view of the governing process and a greater opportunity to participate. As well as the blog and associated RSS feed, there will also be e-mail updates, and texts of executive orders and proclamations. “One significant addition to WhiteHouse.gov reflects a campaign promise from the President,” he said. “We will publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it.”
These are bold claims and the project deserves respect as well as time to grow. In his inauguration speech, Obama referred to a need to “do our business in the light of day.” The new whitehouse.gov site will be an important source of that light. It will also be an antidote to the obsessive secrecy of the Bush regime. The makeover is needed because, as Obama noted, “only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.” The people will be watching, and participating.