Obama's Secret Weapon: Geeks. Lots of Them

We were lost in Boston's South End, looking for Thayer Street. Street signs are optional around Boston, and the locals didn't know either the street or our precise destination... something called Gallery XIV. That was the site of a gathering to which we had been enticed by an email with the subject line, "WHAT SHOULD OBAMA'S PLATFORM BE ON THE INTERNET & DEMOCRACY -- JOIN THE DISCUSSION JULY 28, 7PM".

Fittingly, we got our best directional clues from Geeks Unknown, via Google Maps (hosted on a large sum of Linux servers somewhere in The Cloud) -- over a cell phone. Those vectored us down Harrison Street, where we walked until we found a sure sign that we had arrived: a wall of posters bearing the unmistakable faces of Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama -- merged into one. Turns out Gallery XIV was featuring Abraham Obama:, described as "mash-up esthetics at the intersection of art, technology and politics".

The surreal quality of the setting was matched by the discussion itself, which went exactly as advertised, but was also compromised by three followers of Lyndon LaRouche, all determined to route conversation toward their own emphatic and unbending views -- mostly on issues far afield of "internet and democracy". From what I gathered, LaRouche himself hates the Net, and so did these guys. But they did provide a revealing contrast between the relatively open stances of the Obama campaign and the doctrinal absolutism of those who download their opinions from what you might call a closed source.

At the end we were pointed to a clipboard with a sign-up sheet and a polite request to become more involved; but there was nothing high-pressure or cookie-cutter about the meeting itself. Was that typical? Hard to say. But you can pick up a lot of clues just by comparing the Obama and McCain websites and how you can interact with them.

Back in June I began to do just that, as an assignment to write a long piece for the November issue of Linux Journal, which will hit the newsstands in late October, just before the election. The assignment began on June 3, when I got this email from my friend Jim:

The Obama campaign is looking for people who do big LAMP.
(I love the 'foo' reference.)
Seems like a great LJ / LW story.
McCain's campaign runs Windows:
widget:~ jim$ telnet <http://www.johnmccain.com>www.johnmccain.com 80
Connected to <http://www.johnmccain.com>www.johnmccain.com.
Escape character is '^]'.
HEAD /index.html HTTP/1.0
HTTP/1.1 404 Not Found
Content-Length: 1635
Content-Type: text/html
Server: Microsoft-IIS/6.0
X-Powered-By: <http://ASP.NET>ASP.NET
Date: Tue, 03 Jun 2008 22:58:07 GMT
Connection: close
Connection closed by foreign host.

The ad recruited "exceptionally talented web developers who want to play a key role in a historic political campaign and help elect Barack Obama as the next President of the United States." Recruits would "Introduce cutting-edge social networking and online organizing to the democratic process by empowering everyday people to participate on my.BarackObama". For this they required "A deep understanding of LAMP development processes and best practices", "Experience scaling large LAMP application", "Experience building complex applications using PHP and MySQL" with "deep knowledge of MySQL performance and query optimization" and "Advanced or expert CSS, Javascript, and AJAX skills" and "At least 5 years of professional web development experience".

The ad was hardly necessary. The Obama campaign has been in a buyer's market for good geeks since the beginning. And the company doing the buying was Blue State Digital, which is about as hot as a politically oriented tech company can get . Thanks to Blue State Digital (aka BSD, not to be confused with the operating system), the Obama campaign is one of the most well-oiled yet thoroughly decentralized campaigns ever run. Though centrally hosted, the campaign is"social" (in the literal and technical senses) to a near-absolute degree. More than any political following in history, Barack Obama's has become the electrical electorate, the connected constituency. Plenty of credit goes to the candidate and strategists at his Chicago headquarters, of course, but BSD is the outfit that put the rubber on the road, and there's a lot of it.

The results so far are astonishing. By the end of July the Obama campaign had raised more than $390 million dollars, most of it from more than a million online donors. At the current rate he might pass half a $billion by election day. BSD at last count tallied more than 75,000 campaign events and 2 million phone calls from individual volunteers.

Each of those volunteers has his or her own website at my.barackobama.com, better known to both BSD and the faithful as MyBO, or "mybo". The pages are uncomplicated and fast, yet packed with tools for user involvement. The term "grass roots action" is woefully insufficient to describe what MyBO enables. Instead it provides the boards, nails, hammers, saws and electric tools required for citizens to frame up whole new structures for both electoral politics and the governance that follows.

For an old hippie like me, who grew up in the Sixties, and who remembers the edge-of-war conflicts that tore up the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, this kind of political action -- positive, engaged and constructive -- is something of a dream come true. I'm reminded of Skoop Nisker's famous imperative: "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own". Open source in a nutshell.

Not surprisingly, open source and free software are essential enablers of MyBO. According to Jascha Franklin-Hodge, co-founder and CTO of BSD, "We wanted to make it easy to create an event, schedule it, make it searchable, handle RSVPs, and for people to do their own fund-raising." For that they make heavy use of RSS, of mashable APIs (especially Google's and Yahoo's ones for mapping and geocoding. More:

The stack is LAMP: Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP. On the back end we use lots of open source libraries and tool kits. We use YUI, and Ext, which are javascript UI libraries. One of our developers is the creator of the Horde project, which is a big open source PHP framework.

We don't like to re-invent wheels. So, for example, we don't write our own database connection library. We're using ADOdb, which is one of the more popular ones for PHP, and python as well. We use PEAR, which is PHP's library of tools and utilities. We use PEAR modules for everything from sending email to doing caching... We use things like memcached. We use open source monitoring tools.

We use RSS all over the place: events, blogs... we use it to link parts of our own system internally, say to share information between two different client systems, or between two parts of our system. Wherever possible we try to build those interface points around accepted standards for interchange. If they need to be opened up, or if the client wants direct access to them, we say "go ahead and use whatever RSS library you have".

When I go to my MyBO web page and look for events within 25 miles of my zipcode near Cambridge, 93 come up. Here are a few I'll copy and paste:

  • Canvas carpool
  • Cambridge Ward 11 Convention Watch Party
  • Obama Mamas For Change
  • Watch Obama's acceptance speech with Drinking Liberally
  • Concert + Convention Party hosted by Somerville for Obama and the New England Steering Committee
  • Cambridge Expanding LGBT Campaign Team
  • March in the Allston-Brighton Parade
  • YDM Convention Watch Party
  • Brandeis Democrats and Students for Obama
  • Newton for Obama Phone Bank 9/7/08
  • Voter registration table at Allston Village Street Fair
  • National Anthem: Classical Musicians Unite to Elect Barack Obama (note: donation is required)
  • Mass Obama Pride Watch Party
  • Latinos for Obama
  • 22nd Annual Bobby Bell 5 mi Roadrace/Walk
  • Groveland Days Outreach
  • Veterans for OBAMA
  • Bread and Roses Festival
  • Hurrah for Bara!
  • Canvass in NH (w/Framingham carpool)
  • Potluck Gathering

Each event gets its own symbol on a Google map. You can do your own mashing via RSS, ICAL or KML files. The dashboard also features ways you can create messages, groups, blog posts and much more. I just counted a total of eighteen different ways an individual can engage with the campaign.

When I go to the McCain campaign website and look for events within the same 25 miles, 29 come up. Most all are appeals to join phone banks; although, as with Obama, many are convention-watching parties. (To be fair I tried the same on McCain's home turf in Phoenix, with similar results.) With McCain's campaign there is no equivalent of MyBO. You can join the campaign and become a contributor, of course. I signed up with both sites, so I get emails from both candidates and their campaigns. (FWIW, I'm a registered Independent.) But the Obama campaign is far more engaged and personal. True, the McCain campaign does feature some pretty well-crafted and even funny Web-only ads on its website. But it ain't the same.

According to a recent NPR story, Michael Powell, the former FCC chairman and a close advisor to the McCain campaign, "...hopes (McCain will) create momentum in all branches of government to foster 'a range of e-government initiatives.' That would include making more government services available online and hiring people with substantial tech experience to 'populate throughout the government.'"

Thing is, Obama's already doing that. The man has means for e-governance already in place. And geeks are the ones who put it there. And will continue to put it there, whether Obama wins or not in November.

In the next few days I'll be posting more on the Obama/Geek nexus, and especially on both candidates technology policies. I welcome your input as well, of course. Same goes for the Republican National Convention that's also coming up.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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geek's picture

Thanks for useful article!

Canceled Subscription

Anonymous's picture

I canceled my subscription due to the lack of journalistic integrity, brought to light by this and other blog entries on Presidential Campaign and Politics. Journalism should be neutral and complete, so the reader can make up their minds, not have a point of view pushed at the reader. The headline of an article is where most journalist love to push their view, which the headline is to summarizes the article.

I canceled my subscription and I am sure that others will as well.

loopy tired response

astinsan's picture

I see a flame war out of this blog post coming... Politics ... its all about who can lie the best isn't it?

Isn't that like closed source?

Running a cruddy web server doesn't mean anything. Some people don't know the difference. Some may not know there is anything else other than the branding they have been shown... over and over.

Does it mean anything? Perhaps...

I think it isn't how the message is delivered.

What does the message say?

Who cares how its delivered?


While Politics and Technology can effect one another....

wcboyd's picture

I don't come here looking for that info. Other sites provide that and do a better job of it.
Please, please don't continue this nonsense.

Give me more technology/Linux stuff. I would be happy to see the wasted printed page of your political nonsense with something really worth my while.

What the duece?

Carl's picture

I cannot say that I agree with anything Obama is representing, save for his technical choices. Obviously, Linux Journal guys support Obama, and I certainly don't. I don't follow the "Obamessiah" as they've taken to calling him.

Personally, even though Obama's tech record is impressive, Biden's is absolutely terrifying. I already see with Mcain's campaign surging to higher levels technically because of the youth of his VP pick. I can hardly see somebody of her mindset sharing Biden's technical atrocities. So while Mcain's age detracts from his technical expertise, he was wise to pick somebody who is probably more informed in the technology age.

Biden is pro RIAA and anti

Anonymous's picture

Biden is pro RIAA and anti net neutrality. Biden has a record of sponsoring and voting on bills which hindering technology innovation. To me it sound as Biden is against the open source software movement. Also the open source philosophy matches closer to the republican party. The republican party is for less government influence on our lives allowing for more personal choice and independence.

CNET article on Biden

Anonymous's picture

Here is a News article from CNET which shows Biden's (Obama's running mate) stance titled: "Joe Biden's pro-RIAA, pro-FBI tech voting record" dated: August 23, 2008.


Here is a News article from

Anonymous's picture

Here is a News article from CNET which shows Biden's (Obama's running mate) stance titled: "Joe Biden's pro-RIAA, pro-FBI tech voting record" dated: August 23, 2008.


That changes everything

Anonymous's picture

I must have missed the declaration that since Obama's campaign engine uses Linux, then he would make a great leader. I sure do hope that Tiger Woods' people don't use Windows because that would clearly make him a lousy golfer.

BTW Doc, thanks for not putting so much tech stuff in this article because us tech people, those that pay some of your salary, really hate reading tech stuff from a tech magazine. We would much rather hear all about your political views and, if possible, maybe a daily blog on the growth of your mustache, fingernails, and/or toenails.

Maybe after the election, you could do a two or three part article on why dirt is often brown and sand is frequently tan.

What are you thinking?!

Anonymous's picture

Why would you do this? I didn't subscribe to this ezine because I wanted to hear your political tendencies, I used to subscribe because I wanted to hear about the Linux. Allow me to quote a bit:
1) FWIW, I'm a registered Independent.
2) But the Obama campaign is far more engaged and personal.
3) ... McCain campaign does feature some pretty well-crafted and even funny Web-only adds... But it ain't the same.
4) According to a recent NRP story...
5) ... Obama's already doint that.

Clearly all Linux related ... not!

I wish I could say "thanks for nothing" but you did warn me that "In the next few days I'll be posting more on the Obama/Geek nexus..." I guess I can only say "thanks for nothing but the warning." Maybe I'll resubscribe when either you're gone or the election is over.

both Linux advocacy and Obama being Linux friendly is political

Anonymous's picture

Therefore, choosing one over the other is not the decision.

Why? Because the Obama article is about Linux advocacy at its root.

Try to see the forest, and stop clearcutting only for Linux. Rather, view advocacy as the forest.

This is another case of much ado about nothing.

But do they give to open source?

Anonymous's picture

The point of open source software is to help the next person.
Will the campaign software be published as open source for the
next candidate? If they have done that, then their efforts would
be remarkable. Lots of people use open source software. Far
fewer ever contribute back.

Let's stick to the technology

Mark Dean's picture

Already fed up with a lot of political junk from my inbox to TV ads. I don't choose who I vote for by what technology they use besides, does anyone really think either of them sat down and said 'hey we're going to run our websites on this techology or platform'. Get real. Those decisions are made by their technlogy departments or whatever out sourcing they did. Nor does it matter how easy their respective sites are to interact with.

In reality, you can't extend what Obama's IT department to what may or may not happen if he is elected. Obama's campaign is a private corporation. It is exactly for that reason it is done so well. Government rarely, if ever does anything this well and if Obama gets elected, it is naive to think that just because his campaign technology is good that he will revamp America's government technology. He will have road blocks like all the government unions and what about who will pay for this. Oh yeah, tax increases...

I would like to keep this about Linux and not about politics.


JP's picture


For the best Democratic Convention video experience, you'll need the Microsoft Silverlight plug-in and the Move Networks media player.
We’re sorry, but the Democratic Convention video web site isn’t compatible with your operating system and/or browser. Please try again on a computer with the following:
Compatible operating systems:
Windows XP SP2, Windows Vista, or a Mac with Tiger (OS 10.4) or Leopard (OS 10.5).
Compatible browsers:
Internet Explorer (version 6 or later), Firefox (version 2), or, if you are on a Mac, Safari (version 3.1) also works.

Obama on Linux Journal too?

bladze's picture

what's next? He'll be on your desktop too? This guy is start invading us either that or CNN bought linux Journal. I guess I will come here less... Geeks we don't need politic.


Morgauo's picture

Why are so many geeks for this guy? Sure, his main opponent is "the devil" but how geek friendly is O'Bamma? The guy voted for telecom immunity. And... he planned on gutting the Constelation program. Yes, he later did a backflip on that one but only because he realized he was going against half his voters. What are the odds he will stick to his new position?

If a geek wants to vote for his/her interests then forget either of the two parties. They are just two rear-ends of the same animal.

Ok, enough soapbox for me, time for something more tech and less political.

Ok technology, terrible community

captbob's picture

The mybarakobama platform is far more sophisticated than it's managers. Sure it does lots of cool stuff, but it a) never connected local events to virtual events (e.g. I volunteered twice for phone calling but it never reflected back on my account; I gave a donation manually, i.e. by written check, but it was never reflected back onto my online account), so the only way to get your "social point" score up is to do (ultimately futile) work on the web only; and b) the level of discussion in most of the special interest groups never rose above bizarre. In the forums I participated, the levels of ignorance, paranoia, and narrow interest produced conversations that, had they happened in real life, would most likely have required the intervention of social services representatives capable of handling the emotional and chemical imbalances implied by the participants online behavior.

Having the tools are cool. But unless you can engage them in something other than window dressing ("Hey! We own the 'tubes! McCain Sucks!) the technology still remains in it's "potential" phase for national political campaigns.


A-Twitter-follower's picture

I hope that is the case, but Obama's choice on VP is startling from a tech perspective. Look at Biden's record: urged to have the Justice Department prosecute file sharers (rather than the civil crime they are), sponsored an RIAA written proposal to increase the already-absurd rates for Satellite and Internet Radio (goodbye Pandora, I'll miss you), and attempted to setup a $1 billion ($1,000,000,000) fund to "monitor P2P activities." Seriously, Obama was kind of the tech world, then he digs up Biden and starts shooting the geek-bloc in the foot. With the power Cheney wields, I can see Biden setting up martial law on the internet and allowing for 3-strike rules, increased copyright violation damages, and more guilty-until-proven-innocent trials against anything technological.

Biden vs. Tech

Doc Searls's picture

For tech freedom, Biden was a bad choice. For getting Obama elected, he was a good choice. I'm just hoping that Biden won't co-preside in the Cheney manner, which (let's be fair) is weird and has no precedent.

If Obama's elected, of course. If not, we take a different set of chances with McCain, whose record on tech is blah at best.

Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal

The social accessibility factor

Crystal Edwards's picture

I can't speak to the technical side of the Obama campaign, but I can talk about the social side of his USE of technology.

First, it enables everyone to get involved. From the second-shift foundry worker to the stay-at-home-mom, any hour of the day you can log on to an Obama site and find ways to volunteer your time. The foundry worker can add an Obama button to his family's web page. The SAHM can cruise online information during her child's naptime and write up a synopsis of the day's events, increasing the Obama-positive chatter. Volunteering isn't just left for the wives club or the local Rotarians who can do a phone bank on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Obama is 24/7 and available to -- how many people in the US are on the net now? Yeah. Available to that many people.

Second, I can tell you right now that I don't remember what McCain's logo looks like. Now, I'm an ex-marketeer, and if there's one thing I do it's memorize logos. But his? Can't recall it. It's not on the net, which is where I spend a large portion of my time. Obama's? It's burned on my brain. It's everywhere online. Sidebars, blogs, ezines, big news outlet pages. If McCain spent more money on his online presence, I suspect his support would be more obvious. But as things are now, just from looking at the Web, McCain looks like an also-ran... and barely one, at that.

Third, I'm getting the impression that the age spread of Obama's supporters is wide. From 19 years of age up, folks are talking about him, tossing $10 his way every payday via one of the Obama donation portals, getting tweets on Twitter and daily updates on Facebook. He's used social marketing to a distinct advantage, and it's helping him increase momentum from a public relations POV. It's high-energy, do-what-you-can-when-you-can. It's sympathetic to the wide spectrum of available volunteer and support hours and dollar amounts.

McCain? Since he's stuck in the old political machine, he is slave to the old ways of fundraising and disseminating information. Money trickles in because tele-raising asks for $100 or more. It feels Big Business, out of touch with the realities of his followers' lives. It feels like CitiBank is calling. Is that really what people want to support? Not in this economy. It's a emotional reaction, not a rational one. But it's a judgment nonetheless.

In light of these three points, it's no surprise Obama has the geeks on a purely social level. They identify with the campaign's mechanism. They see themselves as having a part of that mechanism. They're able to take ownership in it, and in some senses a direct personal sense of achievement (if they've contributed widgets, apps, etc.).

I'm looking forward to your continued writings on this topic.



Anonymous's picture

Ugh, I get enough politics everywhere else. I don't want it in my tech rag, too. Isn't there something more engaging going on today in the tech world? BEGIN SARCASM I can't wait to get November's issue. END SARCASM

Obama Meetup

Carlie Fairchild's picture

Photos from the Obama Meetup Doc attended can be found here, http://www.flickr.com/photos/linuxjournal/.

Carlie Fairchild is the publisher of Linux Journal.

1968 style activism

Anonymous's picture

Just a friendly reminder: Kennedy (a Democrat) got us into Viet Nam. Nixon (a Republican) got us out.

Did CNN buy out Linux Journal?

beauxjangles's picture