Andrew Keen: Obama needs to stay in touch with his 13m internet soldiers

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The Independent Online

Last Thursday night, I was in London doing a public debate at the RSA with Don Tapscott, the author of the new Grown Up Digital, a book which explains how, exactly, today's "net generation" of digitally native kids (the 11- to 31-years-olds) is changing our world. Tapscott dedicates much of his new book to politics, explaining that these digital natives are transforming society and arguing that Barack Obama – with his successful utilization of social networks and citizen engagement in the electoral campaign – is the first net-gen President.

So, more than 50 days into his new job, how is Obama doing? Is the BlackBerry addicted Chicago politician who, Tapscott claims, has been created by the transformational net generation, now using the internet to transform America?

To get an unbiased summary on Obama's internet achievements, I spoke to Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej, respectively editor and founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, an online magazine and annual conference on how technology is changing politics. Both men say that it would be premature to judge Obama, but acknowledge fundamental shifts in the way the new President uses the internet to change America.

Sifry lists three areas of change. Firstly, using the example of the new website, the data intensive hub to track all stimulus money spent by the new administration, he explained there was now an internet- centric commitment to transparency in politics. Secondly, citing the example of the Justice Department's reversal of the Bush administration's policy on classified documents, he explained that there had been a "huge shift" in the government's approach to access to information. Thirdly, Sifry uses the examples of Obama's use of YouTube, blogging and Twitter technology to distribute his message as evidence that the internet has become a conventional way for the new President to communicate with the American public.

Rasiej and Sifry agree, the internet represents a quite different series of problems and opportunities to President Obama as it had for Candidate Obama. The challenge, they said, was leveraging Obama's 13 million person base of internet donors and supporters to assist with the running of the country. Sifry notes the "waning of intensity" of Obama's online supporters and urges the President to keep up the online momentum.

Rasiej urges the new President to focus less on the television sound bite and more on the bytes of the internet to fully engage with the electorate. But he reminds me that it is easier to be elected with the support of 13 million online activists than it is to get them to agree on any specific political issue. But, Rasiej explains, the White House digital infrastructure remains underdeveloped and thus things will only change when it is made more robust.

Rasiej and Sifry's always excellent annual Personal Democracy Forum conference takes place this year on 29-30 June in New York City. By then Barack Obama will have had more than 100 days in office. By then, I suspect, we will have a better idea of whether he really is the first genuinely net-gen President in history.