What do custom-designed T-shirts and presidential campaigns have in common? Harper Reed, chief technology officer for the Obama campaign, rose to prominence because he knew the answer: They both can benefit from websites that engage users and encourage community participation—and, in the process, gather valuable data. In a profile at Mother Jones, Tim Murphy describes how such potentially powerful and jealously guarded tech strategies—Obama’s go by codenames like “Narwhal” and “Dreamcatcher”—work.
Reed got his start at Threadless, a website that sells quirky T-shirts to hipsters. But as Murphy details, the site didn’t just make shirts and expect people to buy them; it was a social forum that asked for their input every step of the way:
Last week an account going by the name @PeaceKaren_25 was suspended by Twitter.com. We wouldn’t normally care about some spambot getting picked off, but PeaceKaren is important because she wasn’t peddling porn or popups–she was a political puppet.
Karen and her sister account @HopeMarie_25 are examples of political “astroturf,” fake Twitter accounts that create the illusion of a “grassroots” political movement. In the diagram above, the two accounts are connected by a very thick band, which indicates that Marie constantly re-tweeted everything Karen said. Together they sent out over 20,000 tweets in the last four months promoting the Twitter account and website of Republican congressional leader John Boehner.
Such messages were cataloged and analyzed by Indiana University’s Truthy project, which takes its name from Stephen Colbert’s concept of “truthiness.” The goal of the project is to seek out propaganda and smear campaigns conducted via false Twitter accounts.