Chris Hughes left Silicon Valley's hottest tech company in February to move to Chicago to join another start-up: Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
Only 23 and with a haircut straight from the Beach Boys, Hughes has already been part of one generational shift that is altering how people use the Internet. Now he hopes his experience as a founder of Facebook can transform politics by harnessing the power of social networks to see if hundreds of thousands of virtual "friends" can help put Obama, the Illinois Democrat, into the White House.
"This is a huge opportunity to see how social tools can work," he says. "It's a great test of the technology."
If the 2004 campaign was defined in part by homegrown political pundits gaining respectable-size audiences through the blogosphere, the 2008 presidential campaign may very well be remembered as a turning point for social networking as a political tool.
Sites like Facebook and MySpace are known for their diary-like qualities, where users create their own home pages with links to their friends' pages. They share insights on their favorite books or rock bands and post pictures or videos of themselves, or link to something entertaining on YouTube. These networks have soared in popularity since 2004, with a total of more than 100 million users of MySpace and Facebook.
Already in this long-winded campaign we've seen the impact of the Internet and how social networks can spread messages like wildfire. Two videos, "Obama Girl" and the "1984" video of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), both unauthorized by the candidates, have been viewed millions of times on YouTube and linked to countless profile pages on social Web sites.
Candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, have put profiles on MySpace, Facebook and a site for professionals, LinkedIn, and built downloadable applications, known as widgets, that supporters place on their profile pages as if they were virtual bumper stickers.
But most people still think of online social networks as places where teenagers and college students compete to have the most friends and swap pictures from beer drinking parties.
The Obama campaign aims to change that, thanks in part to Hughes, who understands that social networks can reach far more people than a whistle-stop tour, yet leave an impression of intimacy with the candidate that only a warm handshake might rival. Now he must convince Obama supporters of all ages that there is value to using a social network.
Like Facebook, Obama's social networking site allows supporters to create lists of friends, share blog posts, upload photos and, most importantly, help organize local events and mobilize fundraising efforts for their candidate.
"All social networks have different goals," Hughes explains, as if the technology has been around for generations. "We have a social network for a particular goal, and that's electing Barack Obama. We don't need to know if you like chocolate ice cream."
Hughes remains in contact with Facebook and still consults with the company, which has exploded in popularity this year. He retains an ownership stake that may one day be worth many millions, as rumors of a pending public stock offering persist after the company famously turned down a billion-dollar purchase offer from Yahoo Inc. last year.
In 2004, Hughes lived with Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz in a Harvard dorm where the three of them worked to develop Facebook, the social networking site that has more than doubled its membership in the past year and trails only MySpace in usage. Zuckerberg is the company's CEO.
"Those early days, when we were sitting around in our dorm room, it was just open to Harvard students," Hughes recalls. "Just a few thousand students were using it."
Today, anyone can use Facebook and, according to Hughes, 40 million people do. "It's blowing up right now," he says of the massive growth that saw usage increase by 117 percent year over year in August, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
But he has no regrets about leaving the company -- "It was my life for three years," he says -- particularly since he has an opportunity to leverage social tools to make Obama's online interaction with supporters far more personal.
"I had no idea what a social network was until I used this," says Dianne Durham, a 50-year-old Obama supporter from Columbus, Ohio. She has never been actively involved in a political campaign, save for working on voter registration drives, but is an active user of the Obama campaign's social network site, My.BarackObama.com.
"It helps me stay informed with what's going on in the campaign," she says. "There's a real purpose, a real connection."
The My.BarackObama network is part of BarackObama.com, the campaign's main Web presence. It's Hughes' job -- his official title is "online organizing guru" -- to make what he calls "MyBo" a vital and innovative campaign tool.
Candidates tapping in to tools
Other presidential candidates are also experimenting with social tools. At Hillary Clinton's and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson's official Web sites, for instance, there are links to Facebook, MySpace, Flickr and other social sites. Clinton's site also has "Team Hillary," a location for supporters to find events, host parties and write blog entries.
At Texas Rep. Ron Paul's site, there's a link to the Republican candidate's channel on Justin.tv, where the candidate can broadcast live from events as well as archive short video clips.
"At this point, everyone has some form of blogging online or at least commercials linked to YouTube," says David Friedman, president of the central region for Avenue A/Razorfish, an interactive marketing agency. In particular, he finds Hillary Clinton's site interesting because it is "very professional," but Obama "clearly has the most genuine program online right now." Friedman is closely following the Web aspect of this presidential campaign because his clients are keen to explore branding opportunities in social networks.
Joe Rospars, the 26-year-old new-media director for the Obama campaign, says "250,000 people have created an account" on My.BarackObama.com.
Hughes says that of those, about 80,000 are very active.
People familiar with social networks will recognize the layout of MyBo, particularly the similarities to Facebook. The welcome page is stark, with its most prominent feature being the user login. If you're not a user, there's a box right below to encourage you to join.
MyBo has tools to personalize the start page, known as the "dashboard." Among the most popular is a personal fundraising thermometer that shows how much money a user has helped raise -- not how much the user has donated -- for the campaign. "MyBo was built for organizing," Hughes says. "It's not superflashy; there is nothing there that isn't necessary. We could have included tools to read content more efficiently, but we chose to build tools to reach out to more people, to more supporters."
For example, in Iowa, there are countless numbers of campaign workers on the ground working for Obama and the other candidates in advance of that state's key early caucus.
But in Ohio, which holds its primary later in the election cycle, volunteers like Durham are the campaign's key workers.
"Where there's no staff on the ground, MyBo is really about generating grass-roots activity," Hughes says.
Durham, for example, checks her MyBo profile daily. She uses the blogging tool to keep Columbus-area Obama supporters updated, search for campaign events in her area and stay connected to the larger central Ohio Obama network.
She has used the MyBo e-mail tool to invite people to campaign events, but she finds that many of the people she notifies prefer using the phone to reply.
"Most of the group I'm working with, almost everybody is over 40," Durham says. "Some people don't want to click on a link to RSVP. So they call me. I don't think many of them look at the Web site yet as the helpful tool it can be."
Indeed, there's a key concern that rallying too much support from Web-based social networks could backfire come election day. That's because the demographics of social sites skew young, says Bill Tancer, the general manager for global research at Internet tracking firm Hitwise. "The big question is, is this group going to be one that is likely to vote?"
New research released last week from Nielsen/NetRatings found that Facebook's greatest concentration of new users over the last year was between the ages of 12 and 17. Additionally, of those new members, 80 percent also use MySpace.
Perhaps in response to those trends, presidential candidates are also building a base on LinkedIn, a social site with more than 14 million members looking to make business connections.
"Obama was the first candidate to reach out to us," Kay Luo, LinkedIn's director of corporate communications, says. "But the other candidates are starting to get it too. Everyone has heard of MySpace and Facebook as obvious places to meet young people. But LinkedIn has an older demographic that's professional with a lot less noise. It can be more influential."
Message tougher to control
There's another risk with building social network sites for a campaign, Friedman notes.
"These tools don't allow the candidate to control the message," he says. "It's a shift in politics, from the message being controlled by the campaign to the campaign being controlled by the voters."
But that's not necessarily a bad thing, Friedman says.
"Anything a candidate can do to get voters to engage in a dialogue is very powerful and should be encouraged," he says. "As it relates to voting, social networking is more democratic than in the past. There's much more opportunity for ideas and debate to get out there.
"This takes us back to a hundred years ago when people made decisions based on arguments in the town square."
Hughes sees it similarly, but in a virtual way. "Encouraging people to make friend connections with other people is where we can really add value" to this campaign, he says.
As to his status with the Obama campaign, he just shrugs.
"Even though they may know who I am, they are not here to work with me," he says. "They are here to work for Barack."