Anyone who’s friended one of 100 million users on Facebook or attended one of the 40,000 house parties and gatherings for Sen. Barack Obama has had a brush with Christopher Hughes.
As a kid in Hickory, N.C., Hughes thought his world didn’t reach far enough. But eventually, inside his dorm room at Harvard, he and two friends co-founded Facebook, the wildly popular site that connects people to their friends.
Now, he’s helping Obama harness the power of the Internet to build a network of supporters and raise money as the Democratic nominee’s director of online organizing.
Online networking has become a key component of political campaigns in recent years, and Obama is recognized for his aggressive role in using new media to garner interest and support.
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“Barack as a candidate was unlike any other candidate I had seen in American politics,” Hughes said. “The campaign was from the start totally based on grassroots organizing, and building an organization from the bottom up.”
Hughes got his start in a community near Charlotte that was a slice of “small town America.” His mom Brenda taught math at Newton-Conover High School and father Ray sold graphic arts paper before retiring to Wilmington a few years ago.
He played tennis and piano, got good grades and spent a lot of time on his computer. But by the time he was 13, he was restless and exploring his options.
“I really wanted to be more academically challenged,” said Hughes. “I didn’t feel like I was necessarily in sync with a lot of people I was around.”
As a freshman at Hickory High School, he began researching boarding schools, and set his sights on Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., because it was big, co-ed, non-religious and progressive.
The school accepted him, but initially rejected his bid for financial aid. Hughes knew a break on tuition would be the only way his parents would let him go to the $30,000-plus a year prep school so he got on the phone and appealed.
“They said it was because of him doing it instead of his parents calling, that they wanted someone like him at their school, and they were going to give him the financial aid,” recalled his mother.
“It was a little sad because we southern people don’t send our children away to school very much. That’s what he wanted to do, and it was a very good thing for him to do.”
Hughes got involved in various organizations at Andover, spent parts of his summers overseas and then made his way to Harvard University.
It was there, in his sophomore year dorm room, where Facebook was born. He and two roommates, Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz, tossed ideas around.
Zuckerberg started working on coding for a social networking site for Harvard students college. Once it was launched, they quickly expanded Facebook to other colleges and eventually made it available to anyone with a valid e-mail address.
The site gives users a central place to check out the goings-on of everyone they’ve connected with as friends. Users can search for people they know who have personal Facebook pages and “friend” them — invite them to become friends.
“It started out pretty close to the same thing it is now, to make it easier for people to share information about themselves, to learn what their friends and peers are doing,” he said.
“It so happened it was something a lot of people wanted and needed. Over the course of that winter and spring it just ballooned ... It was clear a lot of people were interested to find a more efficient way to find out what friends were doing.”
After graduating, Hughes joined his former roommates who had already headed to Silicon Valley to continue work on Facebook.
Hughes would rather not say if he was responsible for any particular features of the site, saying it’s part of the corporate culture not to slice up the credit. He said he started out as a spokesman for the group when he was in college, and then switched to the operational side by working on what users see and how they interact with one another.
Hughes won’t discuss how lucrative Facebook has been for him, but the company, which isn’t publicly traded — at least not yet — is now valued at several billion dollars.
It was while working in California that Hughes connected to the Obama campaign, which wanted a Facebook page for the presidential candidate from Illinois. (Among the interests revealed by Obama, who has 1.4 million Facebook supporters, are that he likes singer Bob Dylan, the movie Casablanca, the book Moby Dick and the show Sportscenter.)
Hughes stayed in touch with the campaign, and in February 2007 jumped at the chance to work for Obama as its online organizing director. He left Facebook, but retained a financial interest in the company, and moved to Chicago where the campaign is based.
Hughes said he thinks Obama’s appeal extends beyond his generation.
“When you talk to Barack about his issues or experiences, he is clearly in touch with the lives of everyday people,” he said. “That shows through.”
His main responsibility for the campaign is working on www.my.barackobama.com. It’s the site where Obama supporters can find neighbors who are hosting gatherings to support the candidate, and in some states, including North Carolina, where they can get phone numbers and addresses of undecided voters to make a pitch to. A thermometer can measure users’ fund-raising prowess.
Even his parents, former Republicans now registered as Democrats, have gotten involved, attending house parties in Wilmington and making phone calls for Obama.
“We are very much for Obama, even if our child wasn’t working for him I think we would be,” said Brenda Hughes, who also checks her Facebook page every day.
Chris Hughes said he doesn’t make it back to Hickory as often as he’d like to visit his grandmother now that his parents have retired in Wilmington. But he thinks the town is more diverse than he thought it was as a 13-year-old, and he’s evolved too.
Hughes won’t speculate on what he’ll do next — go back to Palo Alto to work for Facebook, vie for a technology job in the White House if Obama is elected, or head in another direction altogether.
For now, he’s part of a campaign that’s just “heads down and focused” on getting Obama elected.