4 unfinished thoughts on Bernie Sanders' online campaign

The US primaries are wrapping up and it's been an...interesting campaign season on both sides. Bernie Sanders' online campaign, as much as you can attribute it to him, has been fascinating to watch. I'm still not sure what my final thoughts are on what went right and what went wrong but here's what's been floating around my head at this point.

Before I dive in I'll recommend this article from Communicopia. I'm still digesting it and sorting out what it means in the long run and which of these lessons should be absorbed but it definitely is an interesting thought-piece.

While the online aspect of the campaign is impressive it's nothing new. What we see today from Sanders supporters online is a continuation, and to be fair an amplification, of what happened with Obama and even back through to Howard Dean's primary campaign and to an extent Jessie Ventura's run for Governor back in 1998. If you want to put it in historical context I recommend The Revolution Will Not be Televised by Joe Trippi (Gil Scott-Heron is pretty amazing too). They do the grassroots and fundraising better without a doubt but definitely seem to be lacking the data-driven approach of Obama. Though that was something that went into full gear in his Presidential runs.

There's an amazing, grassroots driven phonebanking (and facebanking) engine. If you want to say something about the Sanders' campaign it's that they run an amazing digital campaign. There's some ridiculously intricate procedures up for phone and online campaigning for volunteers. In terms of phonebanking there's software that allows volunteers to contribute from anywhere they have access to a phone. They've managed to coordinate enough to call tens of thousands of people a day. They're also really good at encouraging each other and calling attention to the volunteer superstars.

For Facebook they've got tutorials on how to reach out to friends of friends to maximize impact. This is something I could see being adapted for a bunch of different campaigns.

All-in-all this is what I'm most impressed with I think. It's giving the supporters the tools to help and the agency to engage, which will raise their investment in the campaign.

...but it may just be busy work. Phonebanking is, counter to what many people think, a tool to mobilize your supporters rather than change minds. If you look at one of the scripts for the Sanders' campaign you can see that they end the call as soon as you indicate you're a hard sell. If it's a get out the vote tool then is it a good use of time? The book Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout looked at the issue and says that you can expect one vote for every 35 calls made. This study (PDF) disagrees and says that phone calls, particularly clearly scripted ones, can actually be detrimental. I suppose though that it may be more of a tool to increase investment of the people making the calls more so than the end result of the calls. Nothing wrong with that.

At what point does enthusiasm become detrimental? If you aren't a diehard Sanders supporter then some corners of the internet may have been a living hell for the last few months. There's a certain vein of Sanders supporters that are very enthusiastic and have a skewed view of politics and the political process and can generally be, to put it bluntly, overbearing. That enthusiasm can lead to some mis-thought attempts at campaigning.

Now, this isn't unique to Sanders. Trump has the same thing going on right now (though Poe's Law may be in effect there to some degree). Ron Paul was the same thing back in the day too. I assume Obama supporters were just as bad as well, but I was much more on that train so I probably didn't notice it as much. In any case, it's a turn off for people who are on the fence and perhaps detrimental in the long run. Paul Krugman recently argued that this echo chamber is even having a detrimental effect on the candidate himself and he does have a point; the Tea Party should have served as a warning and not a model. Is enthusiasm something that supporters should try to moderate when evangelizing? I honestly don't know.

Homeland Security is looking at your Facbook and wants to know what you think about Dairy Queen

It's no surprise that Homeland Security in the US is monitoring social media. They've said as much themselves. What is surprising is what they've been searching for. MuckRock FOIA'd their search logs and there's some odd results. I'm really curious as to why someone was monitoring "happy camp." Muckrock has the entire 91 page document redacted document is embedded on their site..

Play to your audience: emotional arcs and making people feel like assholes

In December last year this site was circulating through my Facebook circle.  I didn't think too much about it at the time, for reasons I'll get to below, but it's stuck with me since. I think this is mainly because it's indicative of a problem I've been struggling with in my own work, and one I see crop up in campaigns frequently; it doesn't know who it's for.

Now before I get started I just want to say that maybe this criticism isn't fair. I don't know what the creator intended so I could be judging it as something it's not trying to be. Nevertheless, I think still serves as a good example of not having a clear audience and what that can mean for your user experience.

The site starts with a simple instruction; click here to save the world. As you click forward - though by my best count 173 clicks - it gets into a fairly straightforward admonishment of slacktivism and people who won't put their money where their mouth when supporting a cause. It calls out people who walk past chuggers, people who buy smoothies instead of donating to charities, and so on. It ends by telling you to go do something.

That description really doesn't do it justice. Take a minute to click through and get a proper sense of it.

Knowing your audience is key for everything you do. The audience you are aiming for will inform your goals (or vice versa) and your process design. If you're confused at the beginning you're confused all the way through.

Who is this for? It addresses the general masses but seems to be written for people who know the inside baseball of working in nonprofits. This creates problems and manifests itself in the tone, which is passive aggressive, smug, and frankly more than a little sanctimonious. When it asks you how many smoothies you would give up to help those in need there's no answer that doesn't result in the site saying it isn't enough. That may be true, but it isn't helpful.

They say you attract more flies with honey than vinegar. I'm not a fan of that saying. There's a role of negative emotions in campaigning. Negative emotions are powerful and can be great motivators. Negative emotions can't be the end point though.

If we look at designing an effective process for motivating action then negative emotions can be part of that process. They're a step or a launching point but never the destination. Good campaigns tell a story. Not just the story of the campaign but the story of the audience as part of the campaign. You engage them and bring them into the fold making them invest in it. It's an emotional arc, a character arc, that you take them through. You can't just make people feel shitty and abandon them. You need to give them an out; an opportunity to feel good about themselves when they walk away.

The first example that pops into my head, and it isn't the best, is this Sarah McLachlan ad for the SPCA. It is depressing as shit; showing you images of abused and abandoned animals. The commercials don't just fade to black there though. That would be horrific. They tell you about how you can help and then they show you the impact of that help when you get to see animals that are now healthy and in happy homes. There's an emotional journey to it.

Click to Save the World fades to black after calling you an asshole.

That's not constructive. If you want me - as a member of the public who you accuse of being apathetic and unwilling to contribute in any significant way to charity - to take action then you need to guide me to that action. If you want me to do something then you need to at least hint at what that something is. Let me know how I can make an impact.

This is a question of motivation. Where the site aims to motivate it instead alienates. I don't think the site is wrong in that most people lack the motivation to take substantial action whether that be volunteering their time or their money. People have different priorities and shit to deal with in their lives. There's two ways to go about addressing this; you either a) raise their motivation over that barrier of inaction to the point where they'll take action, or b) you lower the barrier to match their current motivation. Realistically, you're probably going to want to do both.

Because the site doesn't know who it's talking to it fails to accomplish anything. Joe Schmoe off the street is left feeling down and confused and Jan Charity Worker gets to briefly feel smug before feeling depressed that the public doesn't care. A challenge is issued but the rules aren't set out. It's like taking someone who has never seen a basketball in their life, walking them to the court and then telling them to score some points. The people on the sidelines who know how to play can have a good chuckle at the person floundering to understand what they're supposed to do but in the end is anything really being accomplished?

Facebook shuts down parody page and gives it followers to the page it was parodying

So this is a weird one. Facebook has, apparently, shut down a parody page and then took everyone who liked that parody page and automatically made them like the page it was making fun of. The full story is in the video below.

There's a lot going on here according to the video but the take away for clicktivists here is that not only are parody accounts not safe on Facebook but that they'll add you to the followers of pages that you oppose when they shut down the page. Shutting down the page isn't much of a surprise really. That's not to say it's right, but it definitely isn't coming out of left field. Moving the fans though is as far as I can tell is unprecedented and really problematic when they a) don't ask for your consent, and b) don't tell you what they've done. I can imagine a few scenarios where people will start seeing content without realizing the source once they've been moved over.

This shouldn't necessarily stop you from creating parody accounts but it's a risk you should consider before you go making your next fake Exxon page.