Net-Gen President Obama?

Last 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 explain 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 fifty days into his new job, how is Obama doing? Is the BlackBerry addicted Chicago politician who, Tapscott claimed, has been created by the transformational Net Generation, now using the Internet to transform America?

To get a balanced summary on Obama’s Internet achievements so far, I spoke earlier this week to Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry, respectively founder and editor of the Personal Democracy Forum, an online magazine and annual conference on how technology is changing politics. And while both men said that it remained a bit premature to judge Obama, they nonetheless acknowledged some fundamental shifts in the way the new President was using the Internet to change America.

Sifry listed three main areas of change. Firstly, using the example of the new Recovery.Gov website, the data intensive hub to track all stimulus money spent by the new administration, he explained that there was now an Internet centric commitment to transparency of information 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 toward the openness of information. Thirdly, Sifry used the examples of Obama’s use of YouTube, blogging and Twitter technology to directly distribute his message as evidence that the Internet has now become an almost convention way for the new President to communicate with the American public.

Rasiej and Sifry agreed the Internet represented a quite different series of problems and opportunities to President Obama as it had for Candidate Obama. The challenge, today, they told me, was leveraging Obama’s 13 million person base of Internet donor and supporter to the day-to-day running of the country. Sifry noted the “waning of intensity” of Obama’s online supporters and urged the new President to keep the online momentum going by once again "revving up" his core online constituency. While Rasiej urged 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. 

Rasiej, however, reminded me that it is much easier to be elected with the support 13 million online activists than it is to get those 13 million supporters to agree on any one specific political issue. Rasiej also explained that for all the good intentions of the Obama administration toward making the Internet central in governance, White House digital infrastructure remains underdeveloped and thus things will only change substantially when that infrastructure is made more robust.

Rasiej and Sifry’s always excellent annual Personal Democracy Forum conference takes place this year on June 29-30 in New York City. By then the 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 American history.