Henry Farrell came away from a conference with some insights into how the Obama campaign saw the role of online political organizing:
Still, II did have one preconception strongly confirmed – that contrary to much of the media hype, the Obama people saw the Internet as a means to facilitate real world volunteering, rather than an end in itself. As Joe Rospars,1 the campaign’s New Media director, put it, “”There was never anything online that was there for online’s sake.” Chris Hughes, the online organizing coordinator (and previous co-founder of Facebook) was even more direct; “the web was just the vehicle to empower the activists out there to have face to face meetings, to make phone calls, and to raise money.” So it’s perfectly clear that Internet activity wasn’t seen a form of mobilization in itself, contrary to the impression given by some of the more breathless coverage, but rather primarily as a means to more efficiently organize the traditional forms of direct contact. This fits in nicely with some of the relevant experimental work in political science, which suggests that online organizing is more likely to be useful in organizing other forms of mobilization than as an end in itself (although this of course might change over time, as people begin to conduct more of their social lives via the Internet).
I think what’s in the parenthetical is what’s really interesting here. At the moment, we’re in a transitional phase in terms of the internet. The technology is so useful that tons and tons of people use it. But only a tiny fraction of the electorate comes from the age cohort that’s really embraced the internet and thinks of email, IM, social networking, etc. as second-nature. So for most voters, it’s natural to use the internet as an efficient means of organizing non-internet interactions — like how at the office people will send out an email to organize a meeting. But as time goes on, it seems plausible that the gap in efficacy between online interactions and things like face-to-face conversations and (especially) phone calls might close, making it more plausible that you would organize online specifically in order to generate online contacts.