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4 Tech, Social Innovations at the RNC — And One Clever Tweet


This post was originally published by PBS MediaShift on September 4, 2012. I served as their correspondent on the ground at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, FL.

TAMPA, Fla. — For those who haven’t experienced it, a national political convention in America is something like a post-apocalyptic police state crossed with the Super Bowl and an Academy Awards red carpet.

Here at the site of this year’s Republican National Convention, bomb-sniffing dogs, Secret Service agents, and a tropical storm all made it hard for people to connect with each other. But social media probably made people feel more connected than ever. Twitter confirmed that more than 4 million tweets were sent during the GOP event — a one-day record for political conventions.

But we’re somewhat past the era during which merely using a social media platform is considered interesting. Whether it be Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Foursquare or any number of other platforms or apps, people are using them. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents can agree that they like social media.

Guests in Tampa were immediately greeted by a gigantic sign that boldly stated the official hashtag: #GOP2012. Times have changed since the John McCain/Sarah Palin campaign of 2008.

The convention officials themselves were using social media: conducting interviews with media via Skype, monitoring the hashtag. But this is what we have come to expect. It’s not particularly interesting.

(Note: Skype is now owned by Microsoft, my employer.)

Innovation in the shadows

Here’s what I did notice was standing out a bit at the GOP’s big event: collaborations between some unlikely bedfellows, overtly or presumably serving to show both partners in different lights. This took place in what one might call the “shadow convention,” the space outside the official proceedings with delegates and votes and state delegation breakfast meetings, where a melange of media and tech companies hold policy briefings, interact with convention VIPs, and underwrite after-hours parties. The shadow convention with its corporate stalwarts got fairly innovative in comparison to the convention proper.

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Here’s a rundown of some innovations I saw:

1. CNN had a “CNN Grill” at the convention, as they typically do at large events like the conventions or SXSW. It serves as a combination working space for staff and full-service restaurant. Because you need a special pass to even get into the CNN Grill for one day, it’s a popular place to hang out. But CNN was also using social technology in the midst of all the hamburgers and beer. Deploying Skype, they created what they call Delegate Cam, and enabled people following from home to be able to talk to their delegate representative casting their vote inside the security perimeter.

2. Time partnered up with social location service and fellow New York-based company Foursquare on an interactive map that helped conventioneers find each other. I asked Time about why they thought this was an interesting experiment to deploy in Tampa. Time.com managing editor Catherine Sharick told me, “Time partnered with FourSquare for the political conventions in order to help solve a common problem: Where are people and what is happening?” Writing elsewhere, I gave it a “B” for usefulness (if I know where Time writer Mark Halpirin is, what exactly should I do with that information?), but an “A” for creativity.

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3. Mobile short video service Tout collaborated with the Wall Street Journal to launch WSJ Worldstream, an effort by more than 2,000 global reporters who post vetted real-time videos from a special Tout iPhone app. The new video channel was launched in conjunction with the RNC. Reporters posted video interviews with delegates, protesters, and so on. Some of the videos will also be incorporated within longer online written pieces.

4. Microsoft (my employer), for its part, allowed me to use Pinterest to post real-time photos of the behind-the-scenes efforts of my colleagues. That included powering the IT infrastructure of the convention, conducting cyber-security monitoring, running Skype Studios for media and VIPs to conduct HD video interviews, and live-streaming the event on Xbox Live. Interestingly, Pinterest as far as I can tell, was not a popular medium during the GOP convention. I’m not sure if that’s significant, but I couldn’t easily find many pins from the convention.

Toward the end of the convention, social media watchers knew that the Republicans had a success by the numbers — millions of tweets and countless uses of the hashtags, photos uploaded, YouTube views of individual speeches, etc. But that’s expected now. One thing that was missing? A truly creative use of social media that involved more wittiness than brute force.

One Clever Tweet

There were a couple of clever uses of social media by a prominent politician during the Republican convention. That politician just happens to be a Democrat by the name of Barack Obama.

The most popular tweet during the Republican National Convention wasn’t tweeted by a Republican. In a reference to the now-infamous Clint Eastwood “talking to an empty chair” speech, Obama’s account tweeted three simple words: “This chair’s taken.” It was retweeted more than 50,000 times and favorited more than 20,000 times. More importantly, it’s smart, it’s art, and it’s memorable.

Obama also hopped on the somewhat-edgy, somewhat-underground “front page of the Internet” Reddit to do something Redditors (as they’re dubbed) call “Ask Me Anything.” In a half-hour chat, the president took on all comers in a broad Q&A.

Heading into the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., I’m curious to see how it compares. I’ll be Pinteresting, CNN will be Skyping while they’re grilling, and the WSJ will be posting short videos. What’ll be the surprise there, if anything?

Mark Drapeau is the the director of innovative engagement for Microsoft’s public and civic sector business headquartered in D.C. He tweets @cheeky_geeky.

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Pinterest for Politics


This post was originally published on Huffington Post Tech on February 13, 2012. I ended up getting a call from CNN and appearing on The Situation Room to discuss the topic.

If you were living in a cave during the last quarter of 2011, you may have missed out on hearing about Pinterest — the hottest new social platform to hit the tech scene in some time. Judged by leading tech blog TechCrunch as the best startup of 2011, Pinterest is smoking hot and gaining momentum. This is all the more amazing since it is still an invite-only “beta” platform, which by definition restricts its growth.

What is Pinterest? Basically, it’s a social networking platform with a highly visual “virtual pinboard” interface. Users post photos (and sometimes rarely, videos) and link to related websites on their pinboards. Users can also follow the pinboards of other people.

But Pinterest is far from universally loved. It has some quirks. One is that because by its visually-pleasing nature, it has appealed heavily to people and businesses in visual industries like fashion and industrial design. Another is that the platform is highly biased towards female users; by one estimate, up to 97% of Pinterest users are women.

Nevertheless, many people in the tech, business, marketing, and social media industries are falling head over heels to figure out how to leverage Pinterest for fun and profit. A lot of these ideas are pretty standard — integrating Pinterest content with your Facebook wall, using links to drive retail sales. But I strongly suspect that as more and more vertical industries get interested in Pinterest, we’ll see more specific tactics being used in each to some degree.

Very recently, some parts of the U.S. military have taken a liking to Pinterest. Fedscoop reported that U.S. Army, Navy and National Guard have all established official profiles at the online sharing platform.

I suspect that over time Pinterest will become increasingly popular in the public sector as people find unique (i.e., different than Twitter, Facebook, etc.) ways to apply it to public communications. Heck, the President himself (as his 2012 re-election campaign) is already using the popular iPhone app Instagram; if a new social platform has real value, adoption even by the most conservative groups is only a matter of time (whether they use it well is another topic entirely).

Speaking of the President, we’re obviously in the middle of a fiercely contested Republican primary season at the national level, to be followed by a fiercely contested battle between that eventual winner and President Obama. The U.S. will also see hundreds of Members of Congress and their challengers running for office, not to mention many governors and thousands of state and local government officials.

If you’re a campaign consultant or in a related profession (fundraising bundler, television commercial director, soulless pundit), you’re probably asking yourself: Is Pinterest relevant for my candidate?

It may very well be. Here are six ways that Pinterest might be helpful in political campaigns during the 2012 election cycle.

1. Behaving more real-time and mobile. The bar is set fairly low for the average political candidate to be perceived as hip and real-time and transparent with constituents or voters. The mere use of some cutting edge technology to make a campaign more transparent and open about communicating in semi-controlled ways could be great for the image of a candidate looking to be seen as younger/hipper/more tech savvy, etc. Plus, who knows, maybe some of that new openness and conversation will lead to some valuable feedback about what the voters think and want and need.

2. Creating issue-specific boards. When candidates speak in stump speeches, debates, or interviews, you often hear a laundry list of issues, as in, “We need to tackle the real problems, like jobs, the economy, education, the environment…” — but then it can be hard for the casual listener to find the follow up. And if there is some follow up, who wants to read a long, unemotional policy statement on the candidate’s website? Pinterest could be a more visual, emotional way to communicate about issues. Why not have a board all about, say, what the environment looks and feels like in the state you’re campaigning in?

3. Exclusive behind-the-scenes content. Whether it’s the media or the average voter, lots of people enjoy peeking at exclusive content (just witness the success of TMZ). If you’re running the campaign, you have access to all of it. Why not systematically ‘leak’ some out? If you’re a national candidate you could have a board for each state. If you’re more local, one for each city or region or neighborhood. You can publicize whatever you think is missing — behind the scenes at policy meetings, humor with staff, candidate with the family. Just like with Twitter pics, the press will eventually start running photos from Pinterest on the news when they’re worthy.

4. Reaching female voters. Some candidates might be naturally attractive (in the broad sense) to female voters; some may not. Maybe it’s looks, maybe it’s their stand on certain issues. Regardless, data from Google suggests that Pinterest is largely popular with females aged 18-34, with an income of $25-75k. Even a modest effort to use an emerging social platform with a large female user base could help; a great Pinterest board that women really engage with could potentially go a long way.

5. Fundraising. One trait that people have noticed about Pinterest is that it is referring more traffic to other websites than nearly anything else out there (except Facebook, Google, StumbleUpon, and Twitter) — really, quite a phenomenal feat. And because the links associated with Pinterest photos can be pointed anywhere, they can certainly be pointed to not only more information about an issue or about the candidate, but also to specific sites where people are asked for donations. Ideally in most cases, the Pinterest photo would be related to the pitch for the donation (i.e., a photo of an eroding California coast would point to a donation site which says, “Do you care about saving the Santa Barbara coast? Donate here to make Mark Drapeau your next Governor.”). Technically, however, the link doesn’t have to have anything to do with the original photo, if that’s useful (i.e., a pinned photo of Mitt Romney leads to a donation site for Newt Gingrich.)

6. Identity control. Even if the previous five ideas didn’t whet your whistle, there is the issue of identity control. Early on with Twitter, famous people would be impersonated and lead to a lot of confusion. In other cases, there may be, say, two Steve Hendersons who each have claim to a particular name, and one ended up being @SteveHenderson and the other @RealSteveHenderson or something. Now that Pinterest has 10 million users and quickly growing, the same is true. There is already a phony Mitt Romney account, and Newsweek is running a Rick Santorum “sweater vest” Pinterest board. If nothing else, lock down your candidate’s name and likeness so no one else gets it, and in case it becomes useful in the future.

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The President’s Peace Prize Problem


The same week that Saturday Night Live skewers President Barack Obama for accomplishing absolutely nothing, he has won the Nobel Peace Prize? Spin this: President Obama was 11 days into his presidency when nominations closed for the Peace Prize.  What exactly was he nominated for? Forget Jimmy Carter waiting over two decades for his – One could argue that George W. Bush should have gotten the Nobel Peace Prize, since he literally may have done more for world peace by leaving office than Obama did by entering it.

I like President Obama, and I suppose I’m proud that the U.S. President won the Nobel Peace Prize.  But I don’t think I’m going to go to parties at the Swedish Embassy for a while.  In the meantime, I’m sure Kanye West plans to disrupt Obama ’s Nobel ceremony, saying that the award should have gone to Beyonce.

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OPEN LETTER TO UC ALUMNI & FRIENDS


At the corner of 13th and Franklin Streets in downtown Oakland, a worn bronze plaque hangs on the wall of a two-story parking garage. Easy to miss, state Historical Marker No. 45 identifies the spot where, 140 years ago, a California miracle began. Here the University of California spent its infancy, occupying a two-story Victorian that had housed one of the state’s first colleges. In 1873 the university – after graduating an original class of 12 – migrated to Berkeley and began its rise as a land-grant college dedicated to teaching agriculture, mining and the mechanical arts.

The enterprise, of course, has endured, and then some. Under the stewardship of some great leaders, and with the support of alumni like you and, for that matter, all of California, the University has grown from its humble origins to the point where it now stretches all across the state, from Merced to Santa Barbara, Riverside to San Francisco, Irvine to Santa Cruz, San Diego to Davis, Los Angeles to Berkeley – 10 campuses, five medical centers, three national laboratories, 225,000 students, 55 Nobel Prizes and 1.6 million alumni.

It is to that great army of alumni, along with other friends and beneficiaries of the University of California, that we write today, and we do so with a sense of great urgency – to ask you to become engaged as never before in building legislative and financial support for this great institution.

This is a time of peril for the University we all love.

The UC model – providing universal access to a top-notch, low-cost education and research of the highest caliber – continues to be studied around the globe among those who would emulate its success. And yet, this model has been increasingly abandoned at home by the state government responsible for its core funding.

In the past 20 years, the amount of money allotted to the University through the state budget has fallen dramatically: General Fund support for a UC student stood at $15,860 in 1990. If current budget projections hold, it will drop this year to $7,680.

Moreover, it now appears likely the UC system, in this current fiscal crisis, will be ordered by Sacramento to absorb yet another $800-plus million in additional cuts. Its 2009-10 core budget will be reduced by an estimated 20 percent. This will bring the amount of state investment in the University down to $2.4 billion – exactly where it was in real dollars a decade ago.

In the same time frame, by the way, funding for state prisons has more than doubled, from $5 to $11 billion. It’s been reported that, based on current spending trends, California’s prison budget soon will overtake that of the state’s universities and community colleges.

And so, our work is cut out for us. As one Chairman of the Board of Regents steps down and another takes over, we are asking you, as stewards of UC, to step up and help arrest this slide of support, as quickly as possible. It’s often said that it takes 40 years to build up a great university, but only a few to tear one down.

Elected officials in Sacramento who control our core budget must be asked to re-examine their priorities when it comes to future higher education funding. They also need to understand that a fiscal crisis is precisely the wrong time to be putting the pinch on education. Consider what Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote in a recent column:

“… The country that uses this crisis to make its population smarter and more innovative – and endows its people with more tools and basic research to invent new goods and services – is the one that will not just survive but thrive down the road. We might be able to stimulate our way back to stability, but we can only invent our way back to prosperity. We need everyone at every level to get smarter.”

The core money UC receives from taxpayers, via Sacramento, goes to the nuts and bolts of higher education, everything from paying professors to lighting laboratories. But it also establishes the institutional foundation needed to attract the research grants and endowments that enhance the mission and burnish the University’s international status.

Over time it’s been money well-spent. Of the more than 4,000 higher education institutions in the nation, only 60 research universities, public and private, have been judged worthy of membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities. The UC has six members. No other state system has more than one.

In turn, the University has given back to California, not only by educating generations of high-achieving Californians, but also through its triumphs of research. From better ways to grow tomatoes to the birth of biotech, from viticulture to cancer treatments, UC campuses have been incubators of countless scientific and product breakthroughs that add quality to California life and invigorate its economy. For 15 years in a row, UC has developed more patents than any other university in the country.

This is what’s put at risk as state support shrinks. In the end, there are two choices: excellence or mediocrity. While a mediocre UC might cost less in the short term, over time it will enforce on society its own ledger of taxes. Top professors and researchers will begin to drift away, taking with them the best students. Pools of grant money will recede. The engines of invention will sputter.

To those who complain the university has been bloated, wasteful, we say this is a new day. In the last few years, we have seen the institution reform itself. Under a new administration, it is setting new standards for transparency and leadership. We’ve worked hard to maintain strong bond ratings, cut spending in the Office of the President by $60 million, and taken additional cost-cutting measures at the campus level. But there is only so much that can be cut. We are no longer chopping at fat and muscle. With the new cuts, as proposed, we soon will be slicing into bone.

And so, there is much at stake and the threat is real. Now is the time for alumni and other supporters and beneficiaries of the University to spread the word that UC excellence must be preserved and nurtured. Please, do whatever you can. Take time to write a letter or an e-mail to your political representatives. Or lend whatever support possible to the UC system or to your preferred campus.

The message – not in just this current crisis, but into the future as well – must be clear: A just-good-enough University of California would not be good enough at all. Mediocrity is not an option. It’s time to start fighting back for the UC.

Richard C. Blum, Immediate Past Chair, UC Board of Regents
Russell S. Gould, Chair, UC Board of Regents
Sherry Lansing, Vice Chair, UC Board of Regents
Mark G. Yudof, President, University of California

Mark Drapeau is a 2003 graduate of UC-Irvine (Ph.D., Biological Sciences).

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Verified Microblogging Insurance for Microcelebs


The microblogging site Twitter recently announced that in response to some controversy related to fake celebrity accounts, it would soon offer a verification process for, “a small set of public officials, public agencies, famous artists, athletes, and other celebs who run the risk of impersonation.”  According to TechCrunch, such accounts would have a verification seal readily visible.

What is a public official?  What is a ‘famous’ artist?  What is a celeb that runs the risk of impersonation?  I can only raise these issues today, not answer them.  But I think that these questions will become increasingly important during the next year.  It might seem silly to debate whether or not a police chief in a medium sized city is a public official, or whether a painter having his first gallery opening is famous, but when publications like Gawker mine Twitter for interesting stories, and a fake microblogging account publishing something false or harmful in someone’s name is permanent, archivable, searchable, discoverable, sharable, and mashupable, fake accounts can mean real damage for relatively normal microcelebrities without lawyers and public relations teams on retainer.

One area in which this is sure to come into play is politics.  I forsee this as an incredibly interesting area of technology intersecting society in somewhat unpredictable ways.  Many people know that then-candidate Barack Obama used new media tools in order to mobilize people and raise an unprecedented amount of money.  But emerging social technologies have changed the poli/tech landscape in the last six months, and will change it more in the next six.  One thing we haven’t yet fully seen is how the strategy of using negative ads in a regulated mainstream media market  translates into a strategy of negative messaging in a relatively unregulated social media market. This is a topic I plan to write about more in the months to come.

On the other hand, social media sites like Twitter are sure to be close to completely useless in many political races.  While ‘trade’ publication The Hill tracks the tweets of over 100 members of Congress (not unlike Gawker tracks the Twitterati) and political social media consultants like David All offer advice on how to use it to jump start campaigns, there are many situations in which it’s so close to a waste of time as to be worthless.  I recently spoke with the mayor of a small city of about 9,000 people, who told me that she wouldn’t find these tools useful for communicating with her constituents; to paraphrase her, “Why would I use Twitter when I can visit nearly everyone’s house?”  She may be right, or wrong – I don’t know.  While outside the scope of this article, some of the factors determining whether social media tools will be useful in a given campaign are the odd demographics and usage of Twitter itself, the density of people in the campaign area, the socioeconomic status of voters, and so forth.  Nevertheless, someone like the aforementioned mayor may still want a verified account – as a form of impersonation insurance.

A while back, I wrote about the use of social media by Adriel Hampton, current candidate for a vacant CA seat in the House of Representatives.  He has a few thousand followers on Twitter, a decently-read blog, and is getting some very modest but important print media coverage – is he a “celebrity running the risk of impersonation” in the eyes of Twitter?  For his sake, and Twitter’s, I hope so.  Otherwise, the information warfare between incumbents and challengers (the have’s and have-not’s of verified celebrity) could have damaging consequences far beyond what sponsored conversations may bring.

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The Social Media Political Campaign


Recently, a local government employee in California declared his run for the U.S. House of Representatives – on Twitter. In full-blown ‘Government 2.0′ style, he appears to be communicating his message in a very personal manner, largely through new media technologies. Will that be enough to carry him to Congress?

New Media Elects a President

The world has seen a U.S. President campaign partly by grassroots organization via new media channels, and now everybody wants to learn. In the nation’s capital, consultants, lobbyists, and people closely associated with political parties want to know about things like organizing a tweet-up about pending immigration legislation in a specific zip code on the Mexican border. It will be very interesting to see who the winners and losers are – both by the judgement of voters and that of social media gurus – during the 2010 Congressional election season.

But what about the reverse? Too much emphasis is placed, perhaps, on traditional political consultants learning about new media tools and incorporating them into a traditional campaign. What if an avid new media user with some political chops used his social network for a major political run?

Adriel Hampton for Congress

A little over a week ago, Adriel Hampton declared his candidacy for what will probably be a special election for an abandoned seat (CA-10) in the U.S. House of Representatives.  An employee of the city of San Francisco and a former Chronicle newspaper editor, he seems to be personally interested in his local community. Speaking about social software on his website, Hampton said: ‘I want to use these new tools to join [Obama] in Washington, D.C., to transform a government that has become strangely disconnected from the everyday realities of people in District 10.’

His campaign Twitter account accumulated about 600 followers in its first day, and he has also started a podcast
, among using other new media tools.  And the novelty of the campaign (and probably the candidate) sparked mainstream news coverage, even in national political publication Politico.

Count the Metrics

It’s hard to quantify the impact of a candidate’s performance during a press conference, or the effects of a new policy proposal made in a speech. But new media ’success’ is increasingly based on metrics. And early metrics for the campaign fall a little flat. After an initial one-day 600 follower boost, the @Adriel4Campaign account flatlined. And since declaring his candidacy (and asking for $100 from each of his followers, many of whom do not live in his Congressional district), his personal account has also flatlined.

Not to be Twitter-centric, while it is way too early to judge interest in and traffic to his campaign website, custonm Ning social network, podcast, and so forth, mainstream media coverage also evaporated after about two days, and it wasn’t even all positive. This SFist article reports Hampton’s tweets as ‘meth-like’ – not a terrific quality for someone campaigning to hold the public trust.

What’s the Verdict?

When long-shot Barack Obama started his campaign for President, few people were betting on him to win. So it is far too early to truly judge Adriel Hampton’s campaign for Congress. Nevertheless, it is clear that it takes more than merely utilizing new media tools to make things happen. And using them improperly – particularly if the candidate’s words are search-engine optimized - may end up being worse than goofing a question at a press conference, or performing poorly at a debate shown only on a local television channel.

Candidates need platforms, personalities, financing, timing, and luck to pull off a successful run. In the end, a campaign is a campaign, and new media tools are just that – tools. They can in principle helpful for executing a campaign against a candidate’s core strengths and beliefs. But they more than likely cannot be used successfully in isolation.

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