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Online Social Networks in Politics: Promise, Frustration and...

BY Colin Delany | Wednesday, August 27 2008

This piece was written early in July for inclusion in the E-Voter Institute's 7th Annual Survey of Political and Advocacy Communications Leaders and 3rd Annual Survey of Voter Expectations. Incorporated into Harnessing the Power of Social Networks: Campaign 2008 Taps into the Virtual Grid, one of three reports tied to the survey results, it's reprinted here by permission of the Institute. More about the reports. Cross-posted on e.politics.

Online Social Networks in Politics: Promise, Frustration and...

July 6, 2008

Is 2008 the MySpace/Facebook election? You might think so from the political attention and resources invested in online social networks in the past year or so. The top presidential campaigns all amassed much-chronicled lists of hundreds of thousands of "friends" on MySpace and Facebook, and the Obama and McCain campaigns also invested in custom social networks for supporters early on (MyBarackObama has built to hundreds of thousands of members, while McCain's equivalent never hit critical mass and died when his overall campaign first imploded in the middle of 2007).

But for all the prominence of online social networks, they haven't been as critical to this year's primaries as some had predicted: from the Reverend Wright to "Yes We Can" to "Bomb Bomb Iran," online video has almost certainly been more significant in shaping the race, at times even altering the fundamental direction of a campaign. As for direct supporter communications, candidates are still more likely to send email to donors and volunteers than to use social networking sites to reach them. Instead of social networking, the online technology that's really shaken up 2008 is fundraising: the candidates' ability to raise almost unlimited amounts of money online has been a true game-changer, allowing Barack Obama to opt out of public financing and to begin to build a significant Democratic financial advantage for the first time in political memory.

The Promise

Yet the data in the 2008 E-Voter Institute study show that online social networks SHOULD be fertile ground for political organizers: by just about any measure, users of websites such as MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn are more likely to be politically active than average citizens. For instance, they're more likely to donate to a candidate, more likely to join a political email list, more likely to visit a candidate's site, more likely to click on a candidate's ad -- in fact, they're more likely to mention even RECEIVING political email from a friend or family member, which suggests a high degree of back-and-forth interaction about politics in their online (and probably offline) lives.

Significantly, the trend toward relatively high levels of political interest and activity holds true beyond just the top social network enthusiasts: in most cases, average MySpace/Facebook users were closer in behavior to the power social networkers than they were to the non-networked population. For whatever reason, online social networks seem to attract a disproportionate number of politically active people. (Wild conjecture: I suspect that it has both to do with the relatively young age of social networking site users in a year in which the darn kids are politically active, as well as with the natural tendency of all social spaces to attract people who are in general directed outward into the public sphere.)

The Frustration

As plenty of activists in the nonprofit and political advocacy worlds have found, though, actually using online social networks for political outreach can be extremely time-consuming. The results in terms of supporters gained, funds raised or advocacy actions taken are at times astonishing, but in many other cases they're not -- they're often no more than comparable with those gained from email list-building and other forms of online outreach, and are frequently worse. A similar situation seems to exist on the electoral side: the presidential campaigns certainly use online social networking sites, but they drive most fundraising and local organizing via email and they capture most supporters directly through their own websites. [More detail on this assertion in the May, 2008, e.politics article "Has Facebook Jumped the Shark as a Political Tool?"]

Why the divide? If social networkers are so political active, why haven't Facebook and MySpace come to dominate the ways campaigns find, organize and mobilize supporters online? Once again, the E-Voter Survey suggests some reasons.

My Space, Indeed

To me, the critical data are in the responses to the first two questions: "Q1. How do you expect candidates to use the Internet?" and "Q2. What are the best ways for a candidate or advocate to get your attention for the 2008 election?" In both cases, those surveyed put social networking outreach near the bottom of the list overall: only 38% thought expected candidates to use online social networks, vs. 60% expecting online video and 70% online fundraising. As for getting voters' attention, only 36% of hard-core MySpace and Facebook enthusiasts listed social networking sites as a top way to reach them, comparable with direct mail and only a hair above newspaper and radio advertising!

Why? I suspect that one big reason lies in the very nature of online social networking: people have a sense that these sites aren't broadcast tools, that they are indeed actual social networks. Most members limit who can see details of their lives, and except for the obsessive "friend" collectors among us, most limit their networks largely to people they actually know.

In other words, MySpace may be too aptly named for its own financial good: each page is indeed "my space" to its owner and user, and many resist intrusions on their profiles, by ignoring commercial entreaties and overwhelming paid advertising with their own installed games, videos, music and custom layouts. Note that this "problem" -- to me it sounds like a healthy response -- doesn't just exist for political marketers, since if it were easy to find paying customers for commercial products on social networking sites, Facebook would have earned more than $150 million off of advertising to its umpteen million users last year.

Reaching the Networked

I suspect that the most effective solutions to reaching voters via MySpace and Facebook will end up being just as embedded in the fundamental nature of online social networks as the problems are, meaning that they'll use the sites' strengths by treating them as actual webs of connections rather than as broadcast tools. They'll derive their power from the fact that individual links between users generally do reflect real social relationships, and that we give communications from trusted sources disproportionate weight. As some in the online advocacy field have found, if real people do real outreach through real social connections, the results can be amazing -- but often at a great cost in time. As online organizer Ivan Boothe wrote recently about his work with the Genocide Intervention Network,

"We're not simply looking for a mailing list or an ATM -- we want an educated, active movement of people interested in preventing and stopping genocide. Our members need to be able to think for themselves on the issue -- to hold events in their communities, motivate others to take action, press their elected representatives to take [a] stand -- not to simply be another name on a list, but to be a hub in an ever-expanding network."

Which is pretty far from being a one-to-many mass-communications operation: we're talking about working closely (and frequently one-on-one) with people on Facebook and similar sites over a long period of time to help build a cadre of very committed activists, something that most electoral campaigns simply can't do, because of a lack of time, money, staff or all of the above.

That being said, whether or not campaigns have the resources for in-depth social networking outreach, it's becoming painfully easy to provide basic tools to followers that let them spread the word FOR you. Campaign profile pages are free, for starters, and more and more of the standard political-world web-hosting tools are providing options (from widgets to badges to petitions) that allow campaigns to encourage supporters to become evangelists on blogs, discussion groups -- AND social networking sites.

Citizen activism is something that we've seen an explosion of in this cycle, much of it welcomed by candidates ("Yes We Can"), some of it not ("FWD: barack hussein obama is a secret muslim intent on overthrowing the government from within"). Individual citizens' use of email, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter and every other online tool imaginable to promote their causes and candidates has exploded, and campaigns will ignore the real potential of citizen activists (including your email-forwarding uncle -- see the results of E-Voter Survey Question 7) at their own peril. Most will find it better to try to harness the beast than to live entirely at its mercy.

Plus, more-traditional mass outreach may still work in online social settings, since extensive advertising on MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn is still relatively untested, and campaigns with the resources to buy ads targeted at their particular electoral districts may find them an effective way to tap a politically active audience. Once converted by whatever means, each site user is a potential advocate for a campaign in any communications channel he or she uses, online or off.

The Future

Some enthusiasts believe that within a few years we'll all be enveloped in a weave of online social networks from waking until dark, and in that case, online communications strategies will no doubt change (as will a lot of other things -- who else plans to go into hiding?). My suspicion is that social networking sites will continue to be a significant part of people's online lives, with most professionals at least having the equivalent of a LinkedIn or Facebook page, for instance. A much smaller number number of us will invest big chunks of our online selves on the equivalent of profile pages, but I suspect that this will still represent a sizeable and disproportionately political (and hence valuable) audience.

And as TV commercials and other mass-audience channels steadily lose effectiveness, campaigns may NEED the potential evangelists that social networking sites naturally draw in -- building an army of active and aggressive supporters may be the only way to cut through the endless clutter of media saturation and reach actual voters. But, that's a story for another day.

cpd

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