Barack Obama has just been inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States, and has already achieved something extraordinary: like no other President before him, he has managed to mobilize and inspire the American people to get involved in politics. With his team of young and competent supporters, he has redefined the way an election campaign is run: Never before has the Internet exerted such a dominating and crucial influence and spurred so much creative activity.
It is a safe bet that the German parties were among those watching closely as Barack Obama achieved nothing less than a political miracle. In the national election year 2009, the German parties and their candidates will definitely not be able to do without the Internet. An opinion survey about the changes in the information and communication culture carried out by the Allensbach Institute shows that the Internet has become the number one source of information. 59% of all 14 to 64 year olds go online several times a day to keep abreast of current events. It is particularly the social networks like Facebook, MySpace, StudiVZ and YouTube that are gaining in importance.
The social becomes political - this was true for the election campaign in the United States and will also be relevant for the German parties. But how are the German parties represented in the leading social communities and which parties have their own communities?
With a social network of more than 30,000 members, the Liberal Party (FDP) is the front-runner among German parties as regards activities on the Social Web. The Social Democrats (SPD) are also present with a community called meineSPD.net. This platform brings together over 20,000 followers. The Christian Democrats' network, CDUnet, is only open to party members. The Greens' website does not offer any community functions, though there is a forum for discussions.
But at least all parties have their own video channel on YouTube: They are called CDU-TV, SPD VISION, KANAL GRÜN, TV LIBERAL and DIE LINKE IM BUNDESTAG. The FDP offering is the most successful with 449,672 page impressions (as of January 2009), followed by SPD and the Left Party (Die Linke) with 136,071 and 125,721 page impressions respectively. As regards the number of videos posted, the Green Party with 179 videos tops the list while the Christian Democrats (CDU) rank last with only 47 videos. But compared to the page impressions of the most successful offering on YouTube in the German-speaking countries-FC Bayern TV-the party channels are still in their beta stage: FCB-TV on YouTube has almost 1.9 million page impressions and about 4,000 subscribers.
The situation on Facebook turns out to be very similar: While all parties do have a profile, there is still a lot of potential to tap when it comes to the number of group members. Top of the list is the Social Democratic Party with 734 group members, followed by the Green Party and the Left Party with 671 and 454 members respectively. The front-runners of the three biggest parties-Angela Merkel (CDU), Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) and Guido Westerwelle (FDP) also have a presence on the platform. Angela Merkel has a following of 4,298 while Frank-Walter Steinmeier has 846 and Guido Westerwelle 173 supporters. In comparison: In early January, Barack Obama had more than 3.7 million fans on Facebook.
As a comparison of the American and the German participation ladder shows, it would be an illusion to expect in Germany a grassroots movement comparable to that of Barack Obama's election campaign. Nevertheless, the fact should not be overlooked that younger target groups in particular make intensive use of the Internet. Moreover, an analysis of the German blogosphere has shown that a significant share of the debate actually centers on political issues.
So to become proficient in online campaigning and in making best use of the Internet users' high potential of political activities, the German parties will have to try to draw on people's creativity and expertise, to reach the Internet-savvy target groups, to motivate them beyond being a card-carrying member of a certain party, to communicate topical information on multiple channels and to give voters a feeling of authenticity. Millions of the (mostly young) Obama backers received a personalized email informing them about his choice for a running mate, Joe Bidden-at the same time as the word was spread to the press. Nevertheless, the content itself remains crucial also on the Internet. "People have to be inspired by the message. Technology alone cannot do that," says Thomas Gensemer, who developed the successful website www.mybarackobama.com together with Macon Phillips. Obama, on the other hand, managed to do just that.
Dr. Marcel Reichart is the Head of Research and Development at Hubert Burda Media and a co-founder of the international digital conference DLD
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