Will Social Networks Impact the 2008 Election? I think NOT.

On the 12th of September, it will be was the fourth anniversary of my involvement in US politics – from the presidential to the state level – and I have worked on campaigns from as lofty as JK’s 2004 Presidential effort to a local run (Jennifer Gottlieb’s run for an At-Large seat on the Broward County School Board). In this cycle, I find myself on the sidelines – due to forces beyond my control (thanks to the “speed and rapidity” of the NY Supreme Court System).

In 2003, I came into politics with the enthusiasm as any American school kid does – fed the stories of civic action, civic duty and the thinking that with good intention and hard work, you could make change happen in the political process. And, from my experiences, I think for the most part, you can – especially in the primaries or on the edges where the elephants (and donkeys) will not risk to play. But when risk is mitigated, the older, wiser “A-team” comes calling, and the younger, less-experienced are layered, transferred or simply pushed to the edges. The process teaches you valuable lessons for both politics and life in general – if properly seen in context.

But being on the outside of the campaign cycle this year has given me a chance to see if the hub-bub about this being the Year of the Internet is all that it is cracked up to be. From my vantage point, I think the hype is not going to make up for the lack of connectivity that people think the Internet (and social networks) are supposed to bring.

Will Social Networks Impact The Election?

I was asked this question last year by my friend from Wired, after I finished with another campaign, and I can STILL heartily say – even with techpresident’s MySpace, Facebook and YouTube counters – I believe that social networks will still NOT impact the coming 2008 election.


“Wha?”, I hear my poli-tech friends gasp. “Didn’t you read the study that shows Facebook numbers are an indicator of relative success of drawing voters?” “Weren’t you at the Facebook Political Summit?” “Aren’t you impressed by / using the new Facebook tools?” “Aren’t you impressed by the incredible reach of all of the candidates and their supporters through MySpace, facebook, flickr, YouTube?”.

No.

And why not? I think they are missing an essential ingredient: simple, human contact.

All social networks are not the same

Funny thing, these social networks; there are over 100+ of them – addressing various issues, spaces and sundry interests. MySpace – the behemoth that is (IMHO) on the wane is not a place to connect, it is rapidly becoming the place to be a surrogate website for candidates – not for people to connect. Consider the actions you can take on MySpace:

  • Email Your Friends
  • Invite to an Event
  • Post on the Bulletin Board
  • Comment on their Page
  • Blog

….and? Well – you can add widgets, videos, and other visual attractors – but, between you and me, how often does Jack and Jane Voter plan on watching the same video over and over again? Read the same blog post which more than likely came from the candidate’s main site? And, for anyone who truly believes that they are speaking to the national candidate or the candidate is actually listening on that comment site, please know that Suzy Intern really appreciates your involvement.

I could go on about Ryze, LinkedIn, hi5, tribe.net, Friendster (that is soooo 2003), Orkut, myyearbook, eons, mygrito, think MTV, flickr….oy! I could go on, but what are the campaigns actually doing?

Social networks (in version 1.0) have been about exposing data and allowing for a simple search query to allow you to discover other like people in your interest sphere. Web 2.0 suggests that social networks are about a fundamentally different, albeit enabled premise – being social – not simply by having a profile presence, but seeing what is happening in your network and becoming part of the life within that network. Living the pulse of the network and either being part of it – or wanting to be part of it. Do candidates offer a glimpse of that life within the network that is something supporters want to be part of? Does the campaign truly offer a chance to engage in simple, human contact?

When I go to the local mall, county fair, outdoor market – I can often see the ardent supporters of candidates “tabling” in the flow of traffic – holding their campaign literature, sign at the edge of the table, looking for eyes that are ready to learn more about the person running for State Senate, Congress or even President. You and your friends are there, giving each other moral support as the throngs of people walk by – nary paying attention to you, until a person walks up and says, “So….tell me about Senator X.”

Where does this happen on social networks? Can I put up a “table” and engage in a conversation? Where is the flow of people that are milling about that can be “chatted up”? Certainly not on MySpace or many of the other social networks.

While I may have sounded dismissive earlier, Facebook does something that others do not – provides a news feed on my friends. Coined as “exhaust data” by my friends at Yi-Tan, the news feed – if updated regularly, gives me a sense of who is “walking around the mall” of Facebook – ‘specially ones that are part of my social graph. This is where the campaigns would benefit.

Where are the Virtual Tablers?

This is where the campaigns can use their volunteers and give them the power to reach across their own networks and chat up people when they are interested in learning more about the candidate. But, it is not easy to go and “speak” to someone in Facebook since all of the communications are not interrupt-driven (as a face-to-face might be), they are addressed whenever the receiver wants to. How do you get people to accept the interrupts? Usually, that is the sense of presence – of human contact. Once that magic ingredient is “captured” and enabled, then I could see social networks truly engaging people.

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