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Status Messages Are Effective Because They Are *Our* Media

BY Dave Levy | Tuesday, September 15 2009

Dave Levy spends most of his day working on Edelman's Digital Public Affairs team in Washington, DC. A self-proclaimed geek, he blogs often about how traditional media adapts -- or tries to adapt -- to the growing social media world at State of the Fourth Estate.

It has been nearly three entire months since Twitter was overtaken by green avatars and twibbons that supported political causes in the Middle East. Those elements are still scattered throughout these social networks, so it's hard to call it a passing fad. There have even been similar attempts all the way up the political advocacy ladder by Organizing For America, MoveOn's Don't Go, and other various interest groups and topics.

These groups have targeted Twitter and similar social networks for several reasons beyond their current popularity. There is legitimate value of getting users to post positions of support that are, more often than not, seen by their personal connections. Marketers argue that we trust peers significantly more than advertising – the inherent value of a message shared by your friends is worth more than massive amounts of passive impressions through advertising.

When it comes to political ideologies, it is no surprise to see users taking advantage of the candidness of these networks. However, Joe Coscarelli at Mediaite is making the argument that Facebook and Twitter are no place for effective political action:

...there are a few problems with this sort of contagious, but vacuous internet posturing. First, while it is inspiring show of solidarity, it merely functions to intensify the online echo chamber, reverberating within social spheres of Facebook and Twitter friends that are likely to already share the same political beliefs on issues like, say, health care. So while the ever-growing chain of back-patting may feel encouraging to relatively small groups of classmates and acquaintances, it will probably convince next to no one.

Coscarelli is jumping over a very important element that the conversation in social media brings to the table. Whether it is the groups who promote status-based campaigning or users doing it on their own, these networks offer something unique to the public advocacy community: control of the agenda. An old media theory with roots in election coverage purports that the unintentional limits of traditional forms of media – i.e., a finite news broadcast or the limited number of pages in a newspaper – ultimately control the topics of the day.

For someone with passion about a certain issue, it is no surprise to see them wanting their own voice to be heard in the networks that have become their own form of mass communication. Coscarelli may be mildly right that we tend to agree on an ideological level with our friends and followers, but by no means is that it. In fact, these connections are at least mildly less biased than the current triumvirate of cable news networks; it is hard to find someone willing to make the argument that those channels are truly aimed at both sides of the debate. Social media at least provides us the opportunity to disagree with our friends.

More important than bias is the goal of these types of interactions. They aren't about convincing anyone, but about raising the level of conversation to add to whatever may be the leading topics. The lesson from the major backlash against mainstream media during the Iran election shows that, when an issue rises to the top of the social media agenda, it can become a negative for the institution not because of the stance they took, but because they chose not to take a stance.

Personal messages should not be discounted at the rate that Coscarelli hammered them (Quote: "The actual effect on the national debate is negligible, and by convincing some they've done their part, may actual result in a net loss."); the mentality that this version of expressing an opinion is useless and potentially counter-productive is even more of a loss. Social media provides the first major forum to break into the way politics has been covered for the last centuries of free press. Effective political action has direct roots in the ability for the masses to be noticed, and campaign organizers have realized that social media gives us this opportunity.