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The World Wide Web is often dubbed this generation's wild, Wild West. It's a raucous, freewheeling digital expanse rife with every vice imaginable. And like the frontier, the Web is a showcase for an emerging society with its own ideas, goals and morals.

In the pioneering days of yesteryear, men who chose to run for office often traveled the nation by train on whistle-stop tours. In the virtual Wild West, where sex and piracy are still kings, the wooly Web has nonetheless emerged as a pivotal theater in which candidates for office must battle.

The Web is both the small-town train depot and a platform for candidates to gain national exposure - even if the limelight is the last thing a candidate wants. Almost every modern office-seeker - regardless of the office sought - has taken advantage of the Web to some degree. On the national stage, the remaining candidates for U.S. president are investing millions of dollars in their digital campaigns. And on the local level, even city council candidates find that having a handle on Web trends, in particular Web 2.0, may mean the difference between being Wyatt Earp and staring down the business end of his pistol.

Grassroots Made Easy

As you may have heard, there are several people vying for the Oval Office. More than ever, the Web is a key component of the candidates' campaigns.

The Web has blossomed from a campaign novelty to an essential tool to reach voters. The difference during this election cycle for president is the advent of Web 2.0 applications; chief among these new applications are social networking sites, such as MySpace, Facebook and Flickr. By integrating these sites into their campaigns, presidential candidates create new avenues to reach voters.

Traditional campaign strategies - such as TV spots on broadcast networks - are labor- and cash-intensive and were consequently out of reach for most people who ran for local office. What makes Web 2.0 so attractive is that it's just as easy for a mayoral candidate to use as for a high-profile politician looking to move into the White House.

But for all the hoopla paid to campaigns and Web 2.0, one critical question remains: What exactly are candidates supposed to do with these tools? Barack Obama's Web site, for example, features 16 different links to social networking sites. Some of them are broadly known, such as Digg and LinkedIn. Others target specific demographics, such as FaithBase, BlackPlanet and AsianAve. Obama uses each of these sites to deliver a message tailored to a niche audience. The sites also serve as easy ways for voters to connect with the candidate and feel like they're part of the campaign.

John McCain's site, meanwhile, uses a different strategy. Instead of a roundup of social networking sites, McCain's team invested more heavily in blogs and video. His appearances on television can be easily accessed, and supporters can add videos to their blogs via a tool called McCain TV, where bloggers and webmasters copy a few lines of code into their own sites and help spread the candidate's video messages.

Another interactive feature common to both Obama and McCain is a widget that enables online donations. This is yet another tool that works just as well for the

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.