Ashton Kutcher was at a tech conference in Salt Lake City in March last year to promote Community, a new mass-texting app he’d just invested in. The trip worked out better than Kutcher had hoped: Barack Obama was standing backstage, waiting to make a paid appearance. The former sitcom star made his way over, and Obama’s Secret Service detail let him through. Kutcher made his pitch.
In response, Obama said what he often does when presented with an idea like Kutcher’s: He promised to look into it, and that his staff would follow up. Maybe, they said. Relying on texting to get people to hear from Obama didn’t seem like such an enticing idea in 2019.
That conversation changed once the coronavirus pandemic hit. When he couldn’t be in a room with voters and they couldn’t be in a room with him, being able to reach tens of thousands of people at once suddenly seemed more important. Obama’s aides registered a new Chicago-area phone number to use, announced that he had joined Community, and watched followers stream in at a rate of 1,000 per minute. Within a few days, more than 350,000 people had signed up for texts and a voicemail. Relying on texting all but guarantees that users won’t scroll past what he said, as they might with a Facebook post or tweet—and ensures that they won’t encounter the often-toxic comments that tend to accompany politics chatter on social media. Plus, to join, people registered with names, phone numbers, and email addresses. Obama can keep after them to vote—and hang on to their data after the election, too.