A year ago as I was reporting for my book on technology and the 2008 race, The First Campaign, the founder of TechPresident.com, Andrew Rasiej predicted that 2008 would be remembered for the "voter-generated content" that transformed the election.
Now the Black Eyed Peas and Jesse Dylan (son of Bob) may not count as ordinary voters, but their new music video "Yes We Can" is a model for the types of things that people can do today in this first campaign of the information age that never would have been possible before. This election is shaping up to be the first where technology will be both a medium and a message for the election. The last four years have seen technology and the web weave themselves into politics and allow regular people to produce and distribute content that would have been unimaginable just an election ago.
The new video overlays Barack Obama's "Yes We Can" speech after the New Hampshire primary with music and accompaniment from stars like John Legend, Herbie Hancock, Common, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Scarlett Johansson, Tatyana Ali and Nick Cannon. It's a perfect example of the types of content that never would have seen the light of day just four years ago-where could you have bought enough TV airtime to air a 4:30 television ad? How could you possibly have gotten enough nationwide exposure to make it possible?
"I'm blown away by how many people wanted to come and be a part of it in a short amount of time. It was all out of love and hope for change and really representing America and looking at the world," will.i.am told ABCNews on Friday.
The video, which just hit the web this weekend, has already begun to go viral in a big way. I've had friends send it to me on both Twitter and Facebook already and video views on YouTube are rising by the hour. Plus, who knows how many times the original video has been viewed on YesWeCanSong.com?
This video also speaks to another unique facet of "the First Campaign": Creativity moves people and thus votes. For decades, media consultants could be assured that their ads would be viewed on television because there weren't other options. Now with the rise of TiVos and DVRs, commercials are a button press away from disappearing and the traditional advertising roadblock doesn't work. In this brave new world of campaign advertising in the 2008 election, how many campaign-generated ads have gone viral? Just one: Chuck Norris and Mike Huckabee. And truth be told it would be hard to come up with a campaign ad involving Chuck Norris that wouldn't go viral.
Looking back over the last year, it's primarily been voter-generated content that has been creative enough and interesting enough to get passed along. There was the Obama-Hillary 1984 ad, the Obama girl and Guiliani girl ads, and now the "Yes We Can" ad. Hillary's campaign has managed one viral success with her Sopranos parody, but that was hardly a traditional ad -- it was a perfect example of the extra level of creativity that campaigns are now required to tap to get our attention. On the web, unless something makes you stop and say "That's fascinating" you won't pass it along to someone else. Going viral means creating great content and it should be instructive to all candidates that we're seeing the voters go the extra mile to help boost their candidate of choice -- as Howard Dean said four years ago, "You have the power to change this country," both through voting and creating viral content.
And it's in that final sentiment that one can see why the new "Yes We Can" song is so powerful. This isn't the first time the phrase has become a rallying point. Originally Cesar Chavez's motto for the UFW's 1972 hunger strike, "Si Se Puede," it has become a nearly universal labor union rally chant. I've stood at political rallies in half-a-dozen states in recent years and heard the familiar chant. Four years ago, Dean for America's theme song was LeAnn Rimes' "We Can," which played at every rally and on endless loop as our hold music at the campaign headquarters where I worked in Burlington, Vermont.
That simple theme of "We Can" perfectly sums up the hope of an insurgent campaign -- it's not a front-runner's slogan. Too often today politics is merely about the achievable (and that's precisely the model of "bite-sized" politics that the Clintons represent), while the dream is always to do the impossible (Obama's theme). But the truth is that no one enters public service to fight tooth and nail in a bitter partisan environment for the lowest common denominator change. Even Hillary in 1994 with her original health care proposal reached for the stars -- it was only in the years after that that the Clintons, under the guidance of Dick Morris, settled on small, achievable results. Gone was the motivation for transformation on a grand scale.
"Yes We Can" could have been a slogan for Bill Clinton circa 1992, but today it's a message that resonates especially strong with Obama followers. Politics should be all about doing the impossible. As Joe Trippi used to tell us on the Dean campaign, "You gotta believe!"
Garrett M. Graff, an editor at Washingtonian magazine, is the author of the recently published The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).