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Web sites get Obama's word out

Social media descend on D.C. - and not just to party.

By Jessi Hempel, writer
Last Updated: January 18, 2009: 9:52 PM ET

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- The Web helped elect Barack Obama as president of the United States. Now many of the social media sites that spread his message of change during the campaign are heading to Washington, only this time they are focused on community service and conversations about social policy.

"Obama is going to have his 'ask-not' moment," says Scott Heiferman, founder of social-networking site Meetup.com, referring to President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration speech. "He'll ask for people to engage in a way that is even more powerful than JFK ever could because there's all this technology."

Heiferman adds: "What you're seeing from the Internet is a patchwork of 'how-you-can' as opposed to 'yes-we-can.'"

In a short video released last week, Obama called for a day of service on Monday, Martin Luther King Day and the day before the inauguration. "You may ask yourself: 'Where's my moon, my levee, my dream?' he says in the video. "Well, it's here, with you. Step forward." He directs viewers to USAservice.org, a nonprofit set up to promote the national event.

The site connects people to service opportunities near their homes. USAservice also is sponsoring a video contest with YouTube about what people plan to do on Monday (the prize: a phone call from future First Lady Michelle Obama). And a button on the site connects directly to Facebook's causes so that once you have decided what volunteer opportunity you'll participate in, you can choose to advertise that to all of your Facebook friends on the site's newsfeed.

Meetup.com, a tool for organizing local (offline) groups, will be on hand at the inauguration. Half a million of the event's tidal wave of attendees will receive outsize sticker nametags from Meetup.com that read "Hello, my fellow American, my name is...." The goal, says Meetup's Heiferman, is to get people talking to each other. The back of the sticker outlines a four-step process for people to use meetup.com to organize around community service projects near their homes.

One huge supporter of the project is Arianna Huffington, and she plans to wear the nametag to the party she is co-sponsoring on Monday. In a recent blog posting, she issued her own call to service, asking readers to video tape themselves taking the oath of office and send them flying virally around the Web. (Example: The Byler Family)

Meanwhile, MySpace this week wraps up a contest it co-sponsored with social-action network Change.org. In Washington Friday the partners will announce the winners of their "Ideas for Change in America" competition, which drew 7,500 ideas on how to improve the United States. People voted online to determine the top ten ideas, and the winners will be presented to the Obama Administration. Each idea will form the basis of a public advocacy campaign.

Of course all the viral videos, wall posts and hopeful Internet plugs combined don't build new schools, create recycling projects or serve meals to the elderly. People do. Once the inauguration is over, social media will have to pick up an even bigger challenge: keeping people enthused. To top of page

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