Will Social Networks Change Politics?

As the 2006 campaign is coming into the primaries, I recently lunch with a friend from Conde Nast who asked my opinion on whether social networks would have a significant impact on the upcoming 2008 Presidential Election. After our lunch, I glanced at my email inbox and found a newsletter from the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet which quoted an article (from researcher Riki Parikh) entitled “Will the MySpace Phenomenon Change Politics?“.

Just this week, the KerryPAC sent out a job description on looking for an Online Communications Director who would be “responsible for online community outreach and organizing, including strategy development, working with external/internal blogs and social networking sites, online organizing, e-mail campaign creation, and Internet-related project management.” In my start-up consulting business, I recently met with a company that was trying to offer something that resembled Essembly-lite. And just yesterday, the IPDI announced a conference on the issue of social networks entitled “Person-to-Person-to-Person: Harnessing the Political Power of Online Social Networks and User-Generated Content in Politics” on September 15th in Washington, DC.

What was amusing about the synergy these threads is that social networks is becoming the topic de-jour in the political realm.

Will MySpace and YouTube change the way the Beltway does politics? IMHO – Nah.
Every day, in the past two years, I have heard about MySpace and YouTube – this week, Fortune had an article on the “MySpace Boys”. YouTube founders were getting fawned over on Good Morning America and other magazines. The impact of videos on the YouTube site are sited as contributory reasons for Lieberman’s downfall to the Lamont Internet-friendly campaign.

But I would bet that when you ask any seasoned campaign professional – what will the real impact of social networks be in the political process, I believe you will hear in 2008 social networks will be a nice hype story, but the networks will not be as effective as they can be in terms of what is needed for political campaigns. And, because the campaign cycle is already upon us, campaigns will not work to use these networks effectively due to their high human cost and low return.

But I make one caveat – the only way social networks will have some REAL impact will be if campaigns dedicate the energy/resources to make them effective OR to let their supporters within these networks have REAL control over the messages in a fashion as described as virtual precinct captains.

History of Candidates in Social Networks – Is this new?
Interestingly, there were a slew of articles on the topic of the 2004 primary candidates using social networks.

In particular, BusinessWeek discussed the Kerry/Edwards profiles on Friendster and how George W was no where to be found, Many2Many discussed Jonathan Abrames thoughts on Kerry’s profile, and Salon discussed how Friendster changed their process for the Kerry campaign (see the article at Portfolio at NYU) – and that is just for Kerry as he was on the rise.

If you looked during the primary, you can find other examples of the other candidates and their efforts:

  • General Clark was the first to have a profile in orkut, google’s social network play, having a staffer manning the profile and communicating with people within the orkut network (before it became the virtual United States of Brasil). Then, with the creation of the Clark Community Network by Cameron Barrett and team, the Clark campaign could centralize their communications directly from a home-grown platform.
  • Not only did the Dean campaign also establish a presence in orkut, Friendster and other social network spaces, but Zack Rosen and Zephir Teachout created the concept of DeanSpace (rumored to be inspired by an inadvertent purchase of networking books). DeanSpace became Dean’s own social networking solution that would connect the campaign to the distributed campaign – much the same way MeetUp was doing already. Zack continued with his dream as civicspacelabs.org, which now is one of the best Drupal installations and seems to have dropped the social networking angle altogether.
  • At Kerry, I have discussed our efforts which were managed by Erin Hofteig across a number
    of social networks such as orkut (where he also exceeded his maximum allowed friends at the time), Friendster, Ryze, tribe.net and others.

    But what was lost in the priority shuffle that is a primary campaign was the concept of KerryNet – a DeanSpace project designed to help our supporters become the virtual precinct captains. While the development on the transparent networking got shelved, the general concepts of the reward and centralized management structure was reflected in the Kerry Action Center.

Interestingly enough, the Kerry social network experiences provided some insights into how the relationship aspects could work – and the Leiberman/Lamont race demonstrated the next level of social networks – or how concepts/assets can be used within social networks to the advantage of a campaign.

Evolution of Social Networks
Back in 1995, companies trying to secure venture capital always had to include in their pitches some description of their “viral marketing efforts” – how they would keep the cost of marketing down and increase the growth by some form of “word-of-email” functionality. A slew of stories were written and a number of companies were relatively successful (eGroups, a company I helped with, grew faster than any known service at that time, due to the inherent viral nature of mailing lists).

The first phase of social networks was supposedly about providing a new level of transparency to other people’s networks – allowing members of your network to connect with others within to connect beyond your node. And the growth of this first wave? Email invites.

As networks have more transparent (seeing more degrees of freedom/friends-of-friends), a confluence of experiences have made the jump into more attractive networks than ever before. Services made it easier to express their personal interests in a machine-friendly fashion (read: tags), dating sites and search engine tools in all forms of web applications has made searching through structured (and unstructured) data easier, and the ease of developing community tools (e.g. Drupal, Joomla, RoR) has increased the speed to market immeasurably. Couple that with blogging, RSS, faster Internet connections, etcetera – and you have turbo-charged connectivity.

If you want to find like-minded people who enjoy surfing on the East River, look in MeetUp for “East River Surfers”. If you want to find people who want to help victims of the latest natural disaster, you can search the web via google or any other engine for the relevant keywords, or look on your social network for people who are involved in the effort. More than likely, if you are already connected to the networks, you have an email in your inbox calling upon you to get involved with an effort. And, if you want to help a local politician get support in the Netmosphere, create a diary on DailyKos and get a bunch of your friends to astroturf it – thus attracting others to get involved in the discussion.

But, waitaminute – this is about personal interests. People, given a passion for a topic/interest/action, and a “space” to form within – naturally self-organize, given an objective. In political campaigns, this seems like a natural fit – get the candidate elected and dedicate your time and resources to this goal. Uh ho, it is not that easy.

Preaching to the Converted – Friction-Free Communication
Now, mapping this to political campaigns, the benefit of networks would tend to be the ability to leverage supporter’s connections to spread the word and/or to convince to participate – whether by signing a petition, sending a letter to an editor, or donating in a group fashion.

But what is the problem with this? I think a hint comes from the quote that Riki brings from Clay Shirky’s Many2Many blog post:

[W]e talked ourselves, but not the voters, into believing. And I think the way the campaign was organized helped inflate and sustain that bubble of belief, right up to the moment that the voters arrived…

So, social networks make it easy to find people of like-minds to work together, but does not afford the ability to converse or convince people on the “other side” to the merits of your points. And recalling the many “trolls” that scrambled on the Kerry or Dean blogs, discourse was not the order of the day – flaming and negativity was the order of the day. Even on forums, where people would sign up to join in the discourse, contrarian opinions were often shouted down, or shouted aloud without consideration. “You are WRONG, I am RIGHT” often seems how the discussion is engaged.

So – why should we care about his issue of “social networks”?

Tipping Point Alert: Online Networks are hitting critical mass
A report I recently read has MySpace at over 100M registered users. hi5, another social networking site, has 25M. Tagworld, launched just over a year ago has 2M users and growing rapidly. The population of these networks are becoming the equivalent of medium-sized states which, if geographically bound, would garner a large number of Electoral College votes.

But, in the eye of the seasoned professional, they are (often) not considered valuable because communicating with members of the community does not generate the benefits that you find in the real world.

Let me offer a couple of intriguing scenarios:

  • Imagine if you would, former Governor Mark Warner having a MySpace page and a list of friends where he sends a fundraising email to all of his “friends”. Think about the social impact that will have on the MySpace community. MySpace is about sharing content, swapping notes and building friends and recognition. Money making is made outside the community. I believe a case can be made for both sides.
  • Now think about Senator Clinton, building a virtual campaign office in SecondLife, the 200K member community that allows for intellectual property ownership and currency exchanges. In this case, the campaign has a virtual store within the office where you can purchase “Hillary ’08” paraphernalia with your Linden dollars (L$). To pay the “rent” in SecondLife, the campaign converts those Linden dollars used to buy the campaign gear into US currency through various online exchange sites. (Ooch – those pesky-little rules from McCain-Feingold could potentially problem for compliance issues – but it does help in those data collection needs).
  • Or how about Mitt Romney decided to try the Lamont tactic on McCain, using the content from Matt Stoler’s many anti-McCain posts on myDD. He captures a lot of good video content, and now posts it on YouTube. But, in the forest that is the content within YouTube, very little gets found that does not have other support behind it. Maybe he decides to have his “Internet guy” navigate the over 300 video hosting sites, and post them there. Does he get the same bang-for-the-buck as Lamont did?

What does this point out? Applying the standard model or rehashed models does not always work – and campaigns are not designed to play long-term to benefit from the mistakes they make along the way (with maybe the exception of Hillary and Frist).

Thinking of these social networks as databases or platforms is a BAD IDEA – much like the way campaigns consider email lists and voter files as one large blast mechanism with a percentage of response that has a projected average take, social networks could be perceived as another form of communication that can be broadcast to in an “effective” (read: cost- and time-saving) manner.

But, as many people have discovered when marketing in MySpace or on YouTube, the “social” aspect of social networks is key. If success in blogs is dependent upon two-way interaction, success in social networks is even more so. Consider that by entering into a social network, you are leveraging the trust of your connection, to reach out to another. If the relationship is not formed in the social structure that exists within the space, ham-handed actions will quickly alienate the candidate from within.

Campaigns will try, make hay in the press, but little else
Consider the goals of a campaign: raise money, raise awareness, raise lots of money, and then get the voter to the polls (and potentially convince the other side’s supporters not to go). So, put yourself in the shoes of the campaign management – the challenge is: with these priorities, does a social network provide the return that the other tried and true methods do? Does conventional wisdom agree that this is possible?

Is the concept ahead of the curve?

Hillary has already begun with her recent hiring of Peter Daou as “blog advisor”, Warner has Jerome Armstrong and now Kerry is seeking an Online Communications Director, will this be simply a channel for the Communications team to use for broadcasting or shaping the response – or will it become the conduit for coordination between the pieces of the fragmented world of the Internet – building the “virtual precinct captains” we once discussed for KerryNet? To be successful, this will require staff resources and management of large virtual teams. Will a campaign allow this to happen? Unfortunately, I think not – in this cycle.

One last minor anecdote – I always wanted to recruit a field person into the role of Internet Volunteer Coordinator, simply because they understood the need for coordinating large groups of people for a particular activity, and the Internet would just be a different “space” and channel for communicating with the supporters. At the Deutsch Campaign, I almost recruited one – but at the last minute, he decided to take a “real” field role in a northern state. But my experience in both Deutsch and Kerry field operations were incredibly instructive. Erin Hofteig played that role at one point, and I look forward to learning about others.

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