Editor's note: Micah Sifry is co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, a website that examines how technology is changing politics, and the author of "WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency." This commentary is part of a series of "Campaign Tech" articles that will run through 2012 and explore technology's role in the presidential election.
(CNN) -- With little notice, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's campaign has been quietly laying the groundwork for an online social network that could be a crucial weapon in his battle to take the White House.
Called MyMitt, the platform is tucked away on MittRomney.com, accessible only if you choose to register on the Action page and unadvertised in any proactive way. There's no button pointing to it from the homepage, and the MyMitt Action Center looks like it's only partially finished.
Nevertheless, close to 100,000 Romney supporters have created an account on MyMitt, a substantial number at this stage in the race. Here's why this could be a big deal.
In 2008, Barack Obama's campaign built its own social network at My.BarackObama.com. Known as myBO for short, the platform made it easy for Obama supporters to create their own profiles on the campaign website, to write their own blog posts, start or join interest groups, organize their own house parties and, most important, initiate and track their own fundraisers.
Two million people eventually joined, and 35,000 generated more than $70 million in campaign contributions from their own personal networks. Enabling your supporters to visible share their enthusiasm with each other is a powerful way to grow a political network. Even more useful: The myBO platform also allowed the campaign to figure out which supporters were the most passionate activists and to concentrate attention on these "super-volunteers" for a variety of vital tasks.
While Obama's re-election campaign brags about getting its millionth individual donor, basks in its 23 million-strong Facebook following and spends millions on building a sophisticated online campaign operation, it might be tempting to write off the Republican presidential candidates as hopelessly behind in the chase for support on the Web.
But this doesn't worry Mindy Finn, who ran Romney's online operation in 2008 and this year worked on the now-defunct Tim Pawlenty campaign. She said, "Don't count out the Republican campaigns in this area yet. Several of the Republican campaigns show promise of going toe-to-toe or besting the Obama operation by the time they would come out of the primary as the nominee."
Right now, MyMitt isn't nearly as robust as MyBO, but the seeds are there. Built on the Drupal content management system by the campaign's own tech team, MyMitt lets supporters make donations, create their own fundraising pages to rally their friends around, purchase official campaign gear or volunteer by making calls from home on behalf of the campaign.
On October 15, the campaign held a National Call Day for volunteers to "share Mitt's pro-growth message and build support." About 37,000 calls were generated by a couple of thousand volunteers.
That may not seem like much compared with the 3 million calls the Obama campaign says its volunteers made between the beginning of July and the end of September. But Zac Moffatt, the campaign's digital director, says the call-day effort showed that the Romney operation is able to activate volunteers from all 50 states.
Moffatt, whose firm Targeted Victory rose to prominence running online operations for Republican candidates like Marco Rubio in 2010, is reticent to provide many details about the Romney campaign's plans for MyMitt. "We want to make it a platform for people to engage with," he said.
When I suggest that this kind of user-centric toolkit isn't standard operating procedure -- the Rick Perry campaign offers only a personal fundraising page, for example, and Michelle Bachmann makes volunteers fill out an online form and wait to be contacted -- Moffatt demurs.
"Every campaign is going to create a single log-in for their supporters," he said. Maybe he's suggesting that MyMitt isn't worth paying attention to. Or perhaps he doesn't want his competition to realize they're in danger of being lapped.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Micah Sifry.