Abe Lincoln's Ultraslick, Obama-like Social Media Campaign

By Rebecca J. Rosen

A satirical site is asking for your 15 cents to support the Lincoln-Johnson ticket -- "less than the cost of a green turtle soup!"

Lincoln_Campaign_Poster.jpg

Wikimedia Commons

This morning I received an email from Mary Todd Lincoln about the debate last night, or another one a century and a half ago. It's hard to tell. She wrote:

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I started getting emails like this about a week ago, when Abraham Lincoln himself (from the grave, obviously) wrote me. "Is there anything greater than the crack of an iron wedge bursting into hemlock wood?" he asked. "In this time of great civil strife, it's the only kind of rift I can get behind."

The emails led to a website, www.lincoln1864.com, where I spotted a helpful-sounding link called "What is this?" Exactly what I was wondering! I clicked and was swiftly redirected to a blank webpage, www.satire.com, which somehow explained both everything and nothing at the same time.

I emailed the campaign: Who are you? All of the responses, from gentlemen who go by names like "Archibald Marshall Chauncey" (Deputy Campaign Superintendent), stayed in character. "President Lincoln is obviously a very busy man," Chauncey advised me, "but I'd be happy to answer any questions you have about his vision for healing the Union."

Exploring the rest of the website provided just about as many revelations as to its provenance and purpose, though there is certainly a campaign-finance reform bent to the whole thing: A "Get the Facts" button sends you to a Washington Post article about campaign finance; "Get the Latest" links to a Google News search for "campaign finance reform"; "Get Involved" will bring you (happily!) to an Atlantic article by Lawrence Lessig, "The Last Best Chance for Campaign Finance Reform: Americans Elect." My favorite little Easter egg of the bunch is a "Store" link connected to Wikipedia's entry on consumerism.

The whole thing looks like your standard 2012 presidential campaign website, with more than a passing resemblance to many of the devices -- textual and visual -- that define the Obama campaign's online presence.

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There's a campaign blog too, complete with supporter-generated art from one "Earl Tyron of Illinois, sole proprietor of Kline Creek Farm":

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To which the campaign added:

Well done, Earl. Well done.

We ❤ our farmers.

Do you ❤ us back?

Followed by, what else, a donate button (which, mystifyingly, will take you to the donate form for the Trust for the National Mall).

Whoever is behind the effort remains a mystery. The best bet so far was dug up by Kate Dries at WBEZ, who found the first person @Lincoln1864 (the campaign's twitter account) had followed, a logo designer named Graham Smith, who, based on his classy personal site, would definitely have the design chops to pull off Lincoln for the Union. Smith has not yet responded to an inquiry, nor did he respond to Dries, she reports.

In a sense, the project's significance is the way it lays bare the confluence of design language, web features, and even a particular email argot that together signal "campaign" to us. There's a sort of template to it, an impersonal personalization, mass-produced but trying desperately to connect. But for all it does in showing us those incongruencies, my favorite piece of the website was not a piece of political commentary but a piece of history: A link to a video of a song in support of Lincoln's 1860 campaign. The web-design language of today may not be with us in 150 years, but in listening to this tune, there's no question that the idiom of American folk music has held up well since Lincoln's time.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/abe-lincolns-ultraslick-obama-like-social-media-campaign/263769/