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The Procedural Rhetorics of the Obama Campaign

At the recent MLA conference, I was part of a panel called “Close Reading the Digital” with Jeremy Douglass, Mark Sample, Mark Marino, and Matt Kirschenbaum.  Mark Sample recently posted a version of his talk, “Criminal Code: The Procedural Logic of Crime in Video Games,” so I thought I’d do the same.  This is a condensed version of my talk, and it is part of both an article manuscript and a book project entitled “Ethical Programs: Rhetoric and Hospitable Code.” Also, if you’re interested in looking at the accompanying Prezi presentation you can find that here.

I am also cross posting this over at the Critical Code Studies blog.

Close Reading Campaign Rhetorics: Procedurality and MyBarackObama.com

It is now commonplace to argue that the Internet has fundamentally changed the nature of political campaigning.  The Howard Dean, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama campaigns have shown us how fundraising, “Get Out the Vote” activities, and volunteer mobilization all change significantly when certain new media technologies are deployed. But in addition to providing easier ways to connect and communicate, these technologies enable campaigns to make arguments in novel ways.

This presentation examines the Obama campaign in terms of what Ian Bogost calls procedural rhetorics. Software enacts procedures.  In addition to presenting text, sound, and video (say, the brochure-like material often presented on candidate websites or campaign commercials), software involves the crafting of computational procedures. And as we will see, the authoring of procedures is not confined to software. While one of my focuses will be the Obama campaign’s social networking software, MyBarackObama.com (hereafter referred to by its popular shortened name: “MyBO”), we can also locate procedural arguments in the phone-banking scripts that the campaign provided to volunteers.

Some of the procedural arguments I locate are not in line with the strategic narratives presented by the Obama campaign, but it is not my aim to play a game of rhetorical “gotcha.”  Rather, I hope that this presentation can show how the analysis of text, sound, and image can be usefully supplemented by an analysis of procedurality. Further, understanding procedural rhetorics offers citizens one route to a more meaningful engagement with software.

Procedurality and Campaigning

Bogost develops his theory of procedural rhetoric in Persuasive Games.  He argues that videogames use procedural expression to make arguments; gamers interact with those arguments and are asked to make decisions. Immersed in a model of a world, we are asked to embody characters and learn how the model works. But in his discussion of political videogames, Bogost argues that most political games fail to tap the affordances of procedural expression.  Rather than making it possible for players to “embody political positions and engage in political actions that many will never have previously experienced,” most contemporary political games are little more than gimmicks (135). In an attempt to more effectively use procedural expression, Bogost teamed up with Gonzalo Frasca to design a videogame for the Howard Dean campaign. Players of the game were tasked with recruiting volunteers and distributing campaign literature, just as they would as volunteers for the Dean campaign.

While the game succeeded in making an argument about grassroots activism, Bogost explains that “it inadvertently exposed the underlying ideology of the campaign” (139).  That ideology was, in the words of one critic of the game, more about the numbers game of Get-Out-The-Vote activities and “handing out leaflets” than about Dean’s policy positions: “I have to believe there’s more difference between any two candidates than the image on the front of a brochure or the name on a sign…If handing out leaflets for Dean is the same thing as handing out leaflets for Kucinich, why should I vote for either of them?” (139).

MyBarackObama.com

While my own discussion here does not examine videogames, it does locate procedural arguments in the “MyBO” social networking software and the campaign’s phone banking scripts. Much like the Howard Dean game, the procedural rhetorics of the Obama campaign “inadvertently exposed the underlying ideology of the campaign.” During the campaign, the MyBO user’s home page featured a point system.

In an August 2007 blog post, Chris Hughes (a founder of Facebook who left the company to work for the Obama campaign) explained the points system: “Just about every action you can take on My.BarackObama now will give you points to make it easier to see all the hard work you’re putting in to make this campaign succeed.” (Hughes). By assigning higher values to particular activities and by publishing a list of those with the highest point totals, the campaign made procedural arguments about which campaign activities were most important. This point system led game designer Gene Koo to call MyBO “one of the most important game titles of 2008.”  But Koo also pointed out that the game was far from perfect and that it tended to reward certain kinds of activities while devaluing others.  He explains that his own volunteer efforts involved driving to South Carolina and working “in the trenches,” and such activities were not accounted for by the site’s point system (Koo).

The point system was scrapped in favor of the “Activity Tracker” in August 2008 (this was upsetting to some of the point leaders). The Activity Tracker provided a 1-10 scale that reflected not only the volunteer’s number of activities but also how recently she had contributed her efforts. While the first iteration of the point system was purely cumulative, the new system made a different procedural argument by continually asking: “What have you done for me lately?” Sustained activity kept the index at 10, but a slow week of volunteer efforts would mean a drop in that number.

Phone Banking: The Procedural Rhetoric of a Script

If we were to convert an Obama campaign phone banking script to PHP programming code, it might look something like the image above. This code is fictional in a number of ways.  For one, it’s not operational.  There are some statements missing, and we would need to create some additional files in order to make this code run. But my main purpose in including this little bit of fictional PHP code is to demonstrate that both the Obama campaign’s software and its phone banking scripts make procedural arguments.

Further, I want to show that the answer to the question that opens this procedure—“Who do you plan on supporting in the upcoming election?”— instantly determines how long the call will last and how involved the conversation will be.  If the potential voter indicates that s/he is a John McCain or Hillary Clinton supporter, the call may very well be over.  The campaign volunteer is instructed to thank the person for their time and hang up the phone.  If the potential voter is a strong Obama supporter, the procedure continues through a series of if-then statements.  The caller asks questions, provides information about absentee ballots or polling locations, and sometimes even recruits a new volunteer. Many (not all—some scripts were more involved) of the scripts provided by the campaign offered few instructions for how one might persuade a McCain or Clinton supporter to change his or her mind.

But Obama volunteers were not computers, and they didn’t just run the campaign’s code.  Rather, they authored their own procedures.  For instance, one volunteer experimented with a change to his script by adding arguments about Obama’s experience (recent soundbytes had featured disagreements between the candidates about who was more experienced). Upon doing this, he found that women were not persuaded by the argument:

I wondered if it was the new line [about Obama’s experience]? So I tried calls without it. I replaced it by saying that ‘I’m spending my time reaching out to my neighbors on Obama’s behalf because I believe that he’s the only candidate running in either party who can genuinely bring us together to get things done at home and abroad. I’m calling because I believe in him[.]’ It was a total 180. Suddenly, the women I [talked to] weren’t hanging up on me, and some were asking ‘why do you say that?’ Boom. I was in. (Hussein)

This volunteer crafted his own if-then statements and worked through a new procedure, and he also shared his script with other volunteers on the MyBO website. The Obama phone banking script is not evidence that the campaign was programming its volunteers.  Instead, it is evidence that volunteers engaged with the campaign’s procedural arguments by editing, revising, and extending them.

Cultivating Procedural Literacy

The Obama campaign often relied on two key narratives. The first was that President Obama would engage opposing arguments. During a debate sponsored by CNN and YouTube, candidate Obama said that he would be willing to meet with leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea without precondition. Obama also expressed admiration for Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, which details how President Lincoln filled his cabinet with people who had run against him.  And Obama did nominate one of his most fierce rivals, Hillary Clinton, to the post of Secretary of State. The campaign’s second key argument was that Obama campaign volunteers were part of a peer-to-peer network of community organizers. The “Yes, we can” mantra of the campaign made the argument that the campaign was a purely grass roots movement.

But a closer look at some of procedural arguments made during the Democratic primary and the general election reveals a more complex and sometimes contradictory stance. The procedural argument of many phone-banking scripts encouraged volunteers to bow out of agonistic exchange with supporters of McCain and Clinton.  This argument runs counter to much of the campaign’s rhetoric about conversing with enemies or foes. In addition, we have seen that the MyBO software’s procedural arguments reveal a delicate dance between hierarchical control and peer-to-peer interaction. While the campaign spent a great deal of time describing volunteer efforts as peer-to-peer activities, it also exerted control from the center.

A closer look at the procedural arguments mounted by the MyBO campaign allows us a full picture of the campaign’s arguments and motives, and these conflicting arguments indicate that a deeper understanding of procedural rhetoric offers ways to understand all types of arguments, political and otherwise. Further, users can both interact with and author procedural arguments. This discussion of procedural rhetoric signals the importance of developing critical software literacies. Procedurality opens up new possibilities for persuasion and expression, and this invites us to think carefully about software as it becomes simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible.

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] I have also cross-posted this at my own blog, Clinamen. […]

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by James Schirmer, Matt Gold and others. Matt Gold said: Excellent talk. RT @samplereality: RT @jamesjbrownjr: The Procedural Rhetorics of the Obama Campaign http://bit.ly/el3Tm8 #MLA11 #critcode […]

  3. […] “Close Reading Campaign Rhetorics: Procedurality and MyBarackObama.com,” James J. Brown, Wayne State […]

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