The democratic ideal of voters being in charge of elections might, in general, be an illusion but social media offers a tool to fulfilling the ideal. Robert Scoble wrote more than a year ago when the campaigns took off: “Any one of us can post a video that´ll change the outcome of this election. That video will get found thanks to the much more efficient word-of-mouth network that is social media.” Besides video, voters are generating everything from t-shirts, blogs, news, to bumper-stickers, but what does it mean?
Videos such as YouTube have been predicted to take over this campaign. Hundred thousands of videos are uploaded everyday. So far, none of the candidates have “suffered” from a Macaca moment as George Allen did in the Senate race in Virginia in 2006. Researching for this blog entry, I stumbled upon a debate on TechPresident in the fall 2007 about who is running the best Web campaign – Mike Huckabee or Ron Paul? In the end, everyone agrees that Ron Paul ran the best campaign online. I got curious to check out what Huckabee did. Unfortunately, Zephyr Teachout did not link to any of the sites she is mentioning, and I could not find the videos on the campaign site (now turned into a PAC site with only archives going back to March) – except for the YouTube channel that the campaign had created. Huckabee shared voter-generated videos on a daily basis on his campaign website – Obama, Clinton, or McCain do (did) not encourage or share voter-generated videos on their sites. What does it mean? According to Teachout:
“Video images are a central syntax of elections, and unless you encourage people to use their power to join the creation of the moving-image election, you are limiting their reach. I believe people who create video will be better critics of ads, being better able to understand how they are being manipulated; its not the only step, but its a critical step into the circle of creating your own politics. All of these candidates have enough supporters that they could choose to encourage this kind of activity, but they aren’t.“
Pictures are easy to produce on cell phone or digital cameras and easy to share on cell phones, blogs, or photo sharing/social networking sites like Flickr. Today, 60,087 pictures have been uploaded on Flickr of or related to Barack Obama, 5,730 on McCain. A lot of pictures are from rallies around the country, most are taken in a positive light, and some are “hate messages.” I am not a photo expert, but I am amazed by the quality of the photos. Some of them could be official campaign photos but there are produced by supporters. Some of these unofficial pictures might be used later in official campaign material. Or, they might already have been used.
Blogs have been part of U.S. elections for the last couple of cycles. There are tons of political blogs out there. Just like YouTube videos, some of them get a lot of attention, spread through the concentric circles and become part of the conversation for quite some time online as well as offline. Obama´s campaign experienced this mechanism, when Mayhill Fowler who is the voter and citizen-journalist behind the so called Bitter-gate. Fowler published a blog on Off the Bus about Obama´s comment on white, bitter voters in Pennsylvania, said during a closed fundraising. This caused a lot of fuzz and buzz in the media and Obama had to spend a lot of resources fighting this gate right before the important primary in Pennsylvania. The lesson learned is that a candidate can never talk “off the record”.
Barack Obama is the king of voter-generated content. Check out the numbers – for t-shirts, My Space groups, Facebook members or apps. He is generating hope and thereby support (online). On his campaign site, you’ll find the social networking site MyBarackObama where you can blog, find friends, find events, or raise money. Never the less, I found this interesting post on epolitics quoting Clay Shirky from PDF 2008: “it seems like a social network but it actually contains relatively little lateral conversation. I.e., it’s portrayed as a social network, but people aren’t using it as one — it’s not as much of a person-to-person communications tool as we normally think of social networks as being. So, does that make it a top-down tool masquerading as a bottom-up tool?