Canny internet usage has made Obama the people's friend

As one massive contest comes to an end, another begins. The 2008 US presidential election will, like the Olympics, fascinate and inflame, but it will also be as significant for the changing role of the media.

As billed, Beijing was the most-watched TV event in US history, attracting 221 million viewers there. But Americans also devoured 56 million online videos of NBC's Olympic coverage.

The internet is already a major player in the election, first in the raising of campaign finance. The standard route here is the political fund-raiser, where the candidate shakes a lot of hands in exchange for four-figure cheques from well-heeled white guys.

In 2004, Howard Dean's campaign showed how the internet can motivate millions of "moms and pops" and their $100 donations. (Joe Trippi's account of this, in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, is brilliant.)

Democrat hopeful Barack Obama makes full use of internet democracy. His campaign coffers are fuller than Republican rival John McCain's. But, significantly for the marketing onlooker, his internet presence has given him what money can't buy - engagement and ownership.

He has 67,000 followers on Twitter, half a million friends on MySpace and 1.4 million Facebook supporters. LinkedIn offers its standard networking feature - "See who you and Barack Obama know in common!" - and in each of these web locations, the candidate presents the appropriate face, posing and answering questions on topics relevant to each site, such as company start-ups on LinkedIn.

On MySpace and Facebook, people post pictures of themselves and their kids, and send little messages of encouragement, because Obama is their mate.

There is also a dedicated social network on his website, where local groups compete to improve their "activity index" by increasing the scale of their campaign activity, for instance, events attended, doors knocked on and blogs posted.

An online "Phonebank" allows supporters to give an hour of their time to make calls to voters at the candidate's next port of call, simply logging their voting intentions and their issues. It shares the load, engages the many and transforms the functionality of the hired call centre into a "come and join us" from the roots.

Previous elections have seen nothing like "Obama Girl", a YouTube hymn of praise with 9.5 million hits. "You can Barack me tonight" - Good Lord.

Yes, he's running for the most powerful job in the world, but he's not remote like McCain. He's a person and he feels like one of us. He has the internet to thank for that.

Richard Eyre is a media pluralist

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