Chris Hughes is having a philosophical moment. "I don't really know what 'community' means. And I never use that word."
We are in Washington, D.C., just three days before his most recent boss, Barack Obama, will take office. It is so bone-jarringly cold that even nestled over coffee inside a Starbucks, we can see our breath. I resist the urge to pat his nearly whiskerless cheek, or reach over to tighten his jacket against the frigid air. Such a baby face. But at the age of 25, Hughes has helped create two of the most successful startups in modern history, Facebook and the campaign apparatus that got Barack Obama elected. Both were dedicated to the proposition that communities, and the way we share and interact within them, are vitally important. As he recounts his two years as director of online organizing for the man who put community organizing on the map, the existential reverie is understandable. He doesn't know what community means? Really? "Well, I just never think of myself as being in the business of building an online community."
Hughes is a technology star whose business is people. At Facebook and in the Obama campaign, he has been plowing what he observes about human behavior into online systems that help real people do what they want to do in their real lives. He helped develop the most robust set of Web-based social-networking tools ever used in a political campaign, enabling energized citizens to turn themselves into activists, long before a single human field staffer arrived to show them how.
"Technology has always been used as a net to capture people in a campaign or cause, but not to organize," says Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. "Chris saw what was possible before anyone else." Hughes built something the candidate said he wanted but didn't yet know was possible: a virtual mechanism for scaling and supporting community action. Then that community turned around and elected his boss president. "I still can't quite wrap my mind around it," Hughes says.
His key tool was My.BarackObama.com, or MyBO for short, a surprisingly intuitive and fun-to-use networking Web site that allowed Obama supporters to create groups, plan events, raise funds, download tools, and connect with one another — not unlike a more focused, activist Facebook. MyBO also let the campaign reach its most passionate supporters cheaply and effectively. By the time the campaign was over, volunteers had created more than 2 million profiles on the site, planned 200,000 offline events, formed 35,000 groups, posted 400,000 blogs, and raised $30 million on 70,000 personal fund-raising pages.
There were, of course, many players in the Obama victory, starting with the candidate himself. President Obama was not made available for an interview (not surprising given his new set of responsibilities). But Plouffe, sounding very much like the jubilant CEO of a super-successful startup, is clear: "We were very lucky that Chris gravitated to the campaign early." Indeed, a close look at Hughes's efforts and their impact on the campaign sheds new light on Obama's success at the polls — in both the primary and the general elections — and offers lessons for any enterprise seeking to tap social networking as a tool.
At first, online organizing was a stepchild within Obama's new-media operation. But after the loss in the New Hampshire primary, the volunteer networks that Hughes had built with his bare-bones staff "became critically important," says Plouffe. "When we turned to the community, they were there. We sent staff into Colorado and Missouri for caucuses, and the staff was already half-organized." The theme of the campaign, direct from Obama, was that the people were the organization. "We were there to support the people," Plouffe continues, "but that simply would not have been possible if we did not have a set of online tools that enabled us to do that. It wasn't just a tactic. Chris made that happen."
"I met your parents the other day!" A smiling Barack Obama pulled up a chair next to Hughes's cubicle at the campaign's Chicago headquarters to chat. It was shortly after the North Carolina primary in May 2008, which Obama had won resoundingly. A few days before the vote, Hughes had arranged for his parents to have front-row seats at an Obama rally in Wilmington, North Carolina, and they had introduced themselves to the candidate at the rope line. "They are incredibly sweet people," Obama told Hughes. "You should be really, really grateful for them."
Hughes, who generally went out of his way not to impose himself on the candidate, cherishes the memory. Obama did not maintain an office at campaign HQ — he was out on the road or in his Senate office — and his visits were infrequent. That he had taken time out for Hughes was an indication of his growing importance, though he himself saw it only as a testament to Obama's decency. His father, Arlen "Ray" Hughes, recalls, "My wife, Brenda, was crying too hard to speak. But I said, 'My son, Chris Hughes, works for you.' And Barack beamed, and he said, 'That's my Internet man!' "
Hughes grew up in Hickory, North Carolina, the only child of older parents of modest means — his father was a paper salesman; his mother, a former public-school teacher. Hickory is a deeply conservative slice of America, and as Hughes entered high school, he decided he wanted something different. Without his parents' knowledge, he applied to prep schools, nabbing what he describes as a "very generous financial-aid package" from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. At boarding school, he came of age more quickly than he had imagined. Part of that process was realizing he was gay: "I went to boarding school Southern, religious, and straight, and I left boarding school not being at all religious and not being straight." And not so Southern either; he has no trace of an accent.
He also left Andover with a scholarship to Harvard. There, during his freshman year, he met Mark Zuckerberg, a smart kid who had this cool idea for a Web site. It wasn't a business yet. "It was all pretty informal," Hughes remembers. "Mark was like, 'Oh, Facebook is pretty together right now; you should take a look.' " Zuckerberg was user ID 4; Hughes, user ID 5. Hughes was the poet among the teenagers who created Facebook; unlike Zuckerberg and dorm mate and cofounder Dustin Moskovitz, he didn't write software code and didn't want to. Instead, he tried to figure out ways that people would want to connect with one another and share stuff more easily. (His nickname among Facebook insiders is "the Empath.") Hughes began to make product suggestions, "screwing around with the site," as he puts it. When they decided to open Facebook to students outside of Harvard, he argued that different schools should have their own networks, to help maintain the site's feeling of safety and intimacy. He became the official Facebook explainer: part anthropologist, part customer-service rep, part media spokesperson.
The three friends headed west during their sophomore summer break in 2004, in search of venture capital and online adventure. Zuckerberg and Moskovitz stayed in Palo Alto, but Hughes didn't do the dropout thing. "I didn't have the money to just hang out," he says. He returned to Harvard, majoring in the history and literature of France, spending a semester in Paris, and writing a thesis on urban space in Algiers during decolonization. (Yes, liberal-arts majors, there is a place for you in technology.) But he stayed connected to Facebook. He devoted several hours a day to the business during his senior year and relocated to Palo Alto after graduation. Matt Cohler, one of Facebook's earliest executive hires, says Hughes had strong ideas about how Facebook's technology could enrich the lives of users and was a key driver of many hugely popular features. "Chris was the leading product manager for the share functionality on the site," Cohler says. "He was the perfect sounding board for product ideas."
It was Hughes's instinct for satisfying Facebook's users, ironically, that would lead him beyond the site. In the fall of 2006, as midterm elections approached, Facebook took the then bold step of allowing political candidates to set up modified profile pages, well before celebrities and products could have fan pages of their own. When a freshman senator from Illinois came knocking, it was Hughes who provided the customer service. Barack Obama wasn't a midterm candidate, but he wanted a Facebook profile anyway. The approach came in an email from Reggie Love, Obama's now famous body man. "I liked the Facebook idea," says Jim Brayton, then the senator's Internet director, "but Reggie really got it immediately." After Love set up the profile, Brayton says, they realized its potential for an Obama presidential campaign. "We quickly wanted to be able to do more with it. Chris got it right away."
Hughes had his own revelation: Obama's belief in the power of real people to be agents of change dovetailed with his own. "I connected to Barack as an individual first. It just so happened that he was in politics," Hughes says. "By 2007, we were finally living in a culture where people get what networks are and what technology can do to connect people." Facebook's business was taking off. Its user base had grown to 10 million and Zuckerberg had spurned buyout offers from Viacom, Yahoo, and others (as Fast Company covered in "The Kid Who Turned Down $1 Billion," May 2007). But Hughes heard a new muse calling: He felt compelled to help Obama.
Love arranged a phone interview for Hughes with Brayton in January 2007, as the campaign's exploratory site was going live. Just weeks before Obama's official announcement, Brayton and Hughes met in person over coffee at Union Station in D.C. "It was wonderful to hear someone outside the campaign who understood the potential for organizing online," Brayton recalls. He had already hired Joe Rospars, cofounder of marketing firm Blue State Digital, to run the campaign's new-media team, but decided to hire Hughes on the spot. Rospars would have to play along.
"It wasn't much of a job interview," Hughes says of his meeting with Rospars, then just 25 himself. "Joe said to me, 'I hear you get it,' and I became new-media employee number three." (Brayton left the campaign soon after for family reasons.)
Hughes recalls the awkward conversation when he told a stunned Zuckerberg his plan to leave the rapidly growing Facebook to join Obama: "He kept saying, 'Really?' But I wouldn't have left Facebook for any other person or at any other time."
To understand what the campaign was up against in the early days, it's necessary to excise the memories of Obama speechifying to record-breaking crowds and raking in pots of money, and remember what he was in early 2007: a little-known senator with a scary-sounding name and a thin résumé, who had neither Hillary Clinton's inevitability nor a Rolodex of wealthy supporters. "The entire campaign was only focused on Iowa," says Hughes. "Every staff meeting, David [Plouffe] would ask, 'What did you do today to help us win in Iowa?' " A victory in the Iowa caucus in January 2008 would prove that Obama had mainstream popularity and create momentum. The plan, standard fare for presidential campaigns, was to lock up the nomination on Super Tuesday, February 5, 2008.
The day Obama announced his candidacy in February 2007, two sites went live: the main campaign site, BarackObama.com, and MyBO. Nearly a thousand local groups were created the first day on MyBO, generating so much traffic the site nearly crashed. A week later, Hughes held a conference call with some 300 volunteer group administrators to say hello, express thanks, and let them know that the campaign would be providing more support in March. "As soon as I unmuted the button to let them ask questions, it was complete chaos," he remembers. "I learned early on how much structure people need." What Plouffe observed was a young technologist who got the bigger picture. "Chris made sure MyBO was always available to supporters. But he personally was always available on MyBO," he says. Customer service was job one. "He was just like a field director that actually shows up in a state. Any question or problem they had — didn't matter what it was — he handled. He was tireless."
But at first, the Iowa focus meant Hughes had few resources to put in play. While campaign workers flooded Iowa and other early primary states, Hughes was the only one charged with online organizing. He did the best he could with what he had, shaping a structure for the growing army of volunteers, giving them ways to organize themselves and stay excited. The goal: to keep them interacting with one another out in the real world. By March, supporters had organized 5,000 house parties and a National Day of Action, and gone back to the site to report what they'd learned; people who were having luck with fund-raising were tapped to share their expertise on conference calls.
Neil Jensen, a professional webmaster for the University of Vermont who was an experienced blogger and former Howard Dean volunteer, was on the MyBO site from day one, moderating groups and helping volunteers new to campaigning to get their bearings. "The person whom I communicated with the most was Chris," he says. "I would ask Chris for a semiofficial response to things like campaign finance, like what are the rules for setting up events as a volunteer and getting money." Jensen then used the listservs and blog functions on MyBO to get the information out.
Hughes was increasingly anxious, though, that the MyBO platform wasn't robust enough to be truly effective. "I had a development list with hundreds of items on it," he says. "Every morning, we had a 9:30 call where I'd be asking, 'Where is this? Where is this? Why is a project that should take 10 hours ending up three weeks late?' " The campaign had licensed software that Rospars's firm, Blue State Digital, had developed for the Democratic National Committee in the run-up to the midterm elections. It was state of the art for politics, Hughes says, "but not as good as things that people had gotten used to on Facebook and elsewhere. And the tools were untested. They had built them without them being used. That's not how I would ever build software." Acknowledges Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Blue State's cofounder and chief technologist: "We had a base of tools, but we had just started to think about scaling the system."
Hughes admits he was spoiled. "The biggest thing for me was going from a place like Facebook, with fantastic developers and great software, to a place where I couldn't make things happen," he says. He kept asking for more resources. "I thought bringing more developers in-house would make sense, help make things go faster." Rospars, who had taken a leave from Blue State, was in a tight spot. While the campaign org chart put new media at a management level, MyBO was only one of its activities: The online operation was part film studio, part media outlet, part design shop, part analytical geek squad. There were many mouths to feed.
By late summer, Hughes's development list was still some 200 items long — including a phone-bank tool and a redesigned training page — and tension was building between him and Rospars. "It was a simple resource question," says Rospars. Hughes went to deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand for counsel. "I know I ruffled feathers," Hughes says, but he realized "there was no way I could walk into David Plouffe's office and say I'd need 10 people. He'd say, 'What for?' And I'd say, 'To create a national grassroots infrastructure of peers.' And he'd say, 'How is that going to help us win Iowa?' "
"All of our staff in Chicago was working toward the early states," Rospars says. "Chris was the canary in the coal mine."
In November, a few weeks before the Iowa caucus, Hughes ran into Obama in the lobby of the Des Moines hotel where the campaign staff was staying. Hughes took the moment to update the candidate on what Iowa supporters were doing for the cause online. Hughes was reaching out to volunteers on MyBO and other social networks, as well as meeting folks in person. "People in Iowa needed constant information about how and where to caucus," he recalls. It was customer service at lightning speed.
Obama's triumph in Iowa on January 3, 2008, did everything Plouffe & Co. had hoped for. "It was a real flashpoint for the campaign," says Hughes. "We could see that our organization was strong and that the message was resonating with people." Then five days later came the loss to Clinton in New Hampshire. The prospect of a long nationwide primary season loomed. "All of a sudden, it made a difference that we have 60 really organized groups in Kansas, a caucus state. And a hugely active Boise for Obama group," Hughes recalls.
"That's when a bunch of people really got what Chris and his group were trying to do," Rospars recalls. "When we lost New Hampshire, we needed every leg we could stand on. The community turned out to be that leg."
Campaign staffers dispatched around the country discovered what the MyBO community had accomplished. When Jeremy Bird, the official state director, parachuted into Maryland to prep for the Potomac primary on February 12, he was astonished to find a whole field operation at work. "They had the entire thing set up — an office with seven computers, phone lines, a state structure, county chairs, and meetings every other Saturday. They had even picked their own state director." Obama won with 57.4% of the vote.
Obama also took Virginia that day. "We couldn't have done this without the MyBO site," says Marcia Carlyn, co-administrator of the Loudoun County for Obama group. "When we first asked the campaign for resources, they said forget it. Everything was going to Iowa." Hughes's MyBO team filled the breach, with training, talking points, logos and images for flyers, and help organizing events. "We're a noncollege town," says Carlyn. "We're older, conservative, and professional," uncomfortable with knocking on doors and waving banners. "We learned from other volunteers how to do postcard-writing campaigns; we even adopted a city in Pennsylvania and traveled to canvass there." By the time a staffer showed up only a few days before the primary, the Loudoun County group had grown from 5 members to 2,600. "Loudoun County went for Obama twice," Carlyn says proudly.
When the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy bubbled up, MyBO also paid dividends. Vermont volunteer Jensen had set up and moderated the Obama Rapid Response Group, where bloggers and volunteers posted sophisticated, fact-checked responses to negative news stories about Obama. After William Kristol wrote a column in The New York Times claiming that the candidate was in the pews on the day Wright delivered a particularly controversial sermon, "one of our rapid-response people went online and found Barack's schedule in Florida and posted it to the listserv," says Lonnee Hamilton, a volunteer who started Pasadena for Obama. "Our group brought it to the Times, and it printed a correction!"
As the campaign gained momentum, Hughes says he didn't seek Obama out much: "I didn't feel the need to. He knew who we were and that what we were doing was working. That was enough for me." By late spring of 2008, Hughes had won the battle for resources. "Our team just exploded in size," says Nikki Sutton, the campaign's constituency and voter-contact manager, who started as a volunteer helping Hughes manage the MyBO community. As staffers fanned out across the country, MyBO became a key tool for them. "Everywhere we went, we could plug in a zip code, and a list of really excited volunteers would pop up," explains Bird. Says Plouffe: "Indiana? North Carolina? We wouldn't have won those states without the grassroots."
The MyBO community also fed solutions back to the campaign professionals. "The field staff was open to our feedback," says Tracy Brady, a volunteer from Dallas. When it took weeks for the campaign to vet volunteers in Texas who wanted to canvass in nearby states, Brady proposed a streamlined online interview format that the campaign adopted, whittling the approval process to a few days. Back in Chicago, the new-media team routinely searched the MyBO blogs (as well as Flickr, YouTube, and other sites) for compelling stories it could use to emphasize Obama's core belief that the campaign belonged to the people. "We had a treasure trove of unbelievable content from real supporters to work with," Rospars says.
Hughes, meanwhile, was working with in-house and Blue State developers on two breakthrough tools. One was the online calling-and-canvassing tool called Neighbor-to-Neighbor that launched quietly in September 2008. Once a user logged in to MyBO, a list of Neighbor-to-Neighbor campaigns appeared on the left side of the screen; a few clicks produced a list of people, primarily undecided voters or "leaning Obamas," who needed to be called. "Chris put hours and hours into an overhaul of that system," Sutton says. It was highly integrated with data sets — geography, age, profession, languages, military service — to match volunteers with undecideds they might relate to. Volunteers used the tool to make some 8 million calls.
The second was the Vote for Change voter-registration site. The back end was a hellishly complicated dynamic database loaded with local voter-registration rules, while the user interface was a simple series of questions. There was a sophisticated strategy at work: If registrants were students, for instance, they were asked for both the state where they went to school and the state they came from. "We'd determine which state was most important for us to win," says Hughes, "and assuming that the law says that a full-time student can register there, we would suggest it." The site registered a million people, with only a handful of staffers working on it part time. Registering the same number by knocking on doors took some 2,000 paid staffers and volunteers.
The new-media team was still busy on election night. The 33,000-square-foot sprawl that was the campaign's 11th-floor Chicago command center was largely abandoned as staffers streamed to Grant Park, but the online crew still had a few million emails and texts to send once California was called at 10 p.m. Chicago time. They checked the electronic countdown clock on the wall as it ticked off the last minutes and seconds, and watched the TV as projections were made. California! Whooping, crying, laughing, and hugging, the team spun into action one last time, tapping, clicking, and then staring expectantly into computer screens. Hughes's eyes shine at the memory. "We were like, 'Okay, is it sending? Let's go!' "
Rospars and the others dashed for a trolley that had been arranged, complete with Secret Service escort, to get them safely to Grant Park in time to hear the president-elect speak. Hughes, waiting a few extra minutes to be sure the emails went off without a hitch, missed the trolley. With two friends in tow, he ran full speed down North Michigan Avenue, feet pounding on pavement. "It was so great, just to move," he recalls. "I was out of breath, but I made it. Just."
Sitting over dinner in downtown Manhattan in February, Hughes is still in a philosophical mood. During the transition, he helped transform MyBO into Organizing for America, now a project of the DNC. But he waffled on joining the new administration's official new-media efforts. Government, he recognized, is far different from a campaign — all bureaucracy, very little startup. (Rospars, who has returned to Blue State Digital, agrees: "Join the ranks of people in suits and bad laptops?" He smiles. "Not for me.") Hughes is proud of the tools he helped develop, including Organizing for America, which have now been folded into Blue State's offerings for progressive candidates and causes. Yet he's ready to move on, knowing that "the causes I care about have campaign-tested technology to work with." Ultimately, Hughes relocated to Brooklyn, where he is busy furnishing his first real apartment. "I'm nesting," he says.
Hughes remains good friends with Zuckerberg. They spent an afternoon together in New York, when the Facebook CEO was on his way to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But Hughes insists that a return to his Facebook roots is not in his plans. He does muse about the Facebook that might have been had he not left to join Obama. "I wonder if they're doing everything they can to help people really share information most efficiently," he says, mentioning the site's current emphasis on news feeds and status updates. "In no way is that a criticism — just fun to think about."
Hughes is waiting to feel the call of what's next. "I am a person who feels compelled and then gets immersed," he says. He talks about the seeds of interest that are starting to take root, options he's been offered in venture capital or in old media, the information ancien régime that is desperately in need of innovation. "I've been in the business of building technology that networks people," Hughes says. "So far, the goal has been to make it easier to communicate and self-organize. Depending on what I do next, it may be to make it easier for people to learn about the world around them."
He can't help but obsess about making technology less obsessive and simpler for everyone to use. He has started to Twitter, albeit reluctantly. He worries about how overconnected people are, even himself: "I keep an eye on it." He thinks that Web 2.0 underemphasizes the real world and that businesses trying to tap the technology often miss the main point. His philosophy, he says, is unchanged from his first involvement with Facebook: "It doesn't matter if it's a company or a campaign; you build around commonality. If it's real people and real communities, then it's valuable. Otherwise it's just playing around online."
In the campaign, Obama was that commonality. But the community-organizer candidate wanted a nation of organizers, and Hughes made that happen. Meg Galipault started the Obama volunteer group in Knox County, Ohio, a rural area about an hour from Columbus. The challenges there were intense: the rift in the Democratic Party between Clinton and Obama backers, the state's conservatism, the racism that occasionally surfaced. MyBO helped Galipault and her nervous volunteers find their way. "Instead of reciting a list of why we wanted people to vote for Barack, like we did for Kerry," she says, "we were told to ask what was important to people and listen to them." They fed back what they learned via MyBO and used that knowledge to create local service projects that continue to this day.
"People have always communicated, organized around campaigns," says Hughes. "We just made it easier." Even he is sometimes surprised by what the technology revealed. When he plugged his hometown's zip code into MyBO's event function toward the end of the campaign, he wasn't expecting much — "they went pretty solidly for McCain there," he says with a smile. But search a 50-mile radius around 28601 and a different picture of Hickory emerges: Flag after flag pops up, indicating groups that organized for Obama. "I would never have guessed that they were there," he says. That may be the biggest lesson of the campaign: Trusting a community can produce dramatic and unexpected results.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.