When Facebook introduced its new timeline in late 2011, Barack Obama was invited to inaugurate it in great fanfare. During the 2008 presidential campaign, John Edwards announced his candidacy to the Democratic nomination on YouTube. President Obama’s Pinterest board made international news in March 2012 – and these are only three examples among many.
How did social networks become so central to the strategies of politicians?
A brief historical overview. Ever since the Internet became mainstream in the United States, politicians have used it to convey their message. In the presidential campaigns of 1996 and 2000, the main candidates created elaborate websites, which served as repositories of manifestoes, speech transcripts, and audio and video clips of the candidates on the campaign trail. They also served as fundraising and mobilization tools. Unlike television and its 20-second soundbites, websites enabled the publication of lengthy documents and statements of purpose. They made possible the full deployment of each candidate’s rhetoric. Therefore, the early campaign websites were essentially a throwback to older political forms.
When Howard Dean sought the Democratic nomination for the 2004 presidential race, he introduced a truly innovative element, as his official website contained links to the blogs of his supporters. The animated conversations on these blogs powerfully contributed to making Dean’s Internet campaign come alive. He didn’t win the nomination, but his campaign focused everybody’s mind on the real opportunity afforded by Internet campaigns, i.e. the conversational mode between candidates and supporters, and among supporters themselves.
This insight was carried over to the 2008 primaries and presidential campaign. By that time, social networks such as MySpace (then top of the heap) and Facebook had become widely used, mostly among teenagers. The main candidates all had their own pages, with profiles that differed in no way from those of all the other users. Followers could post their own pictures and comments, as they would for anyone else of their friends, in a process that is now thoroughly familiar to all of us: for the main candidates, the 2012 presidential campaign has expanded to all available social networks.
How can we interpret the presence of candidates to the highest office on social networks? The first motivation has to do with the need for politicians to drum up participation. The comments made possible by social networks lead to more participatory politics; each person commenting on the candidate’s website contributes to the creation of a vast conversation, building up over time the narrative of the public’s participation to the candidate’s campaign. Hence, the candidate’s page is co-built and co-produced by each comment, be it from opponents or from supporters. Co-production becomes an element of political participation.
Secondly, the underlying rationale of social networks is one of display: millions of followers, page upon page of comments and pictures – all of these are meant to demonstrate the reality of people’s support for the candidate. On the politicians’ part, it is also an attempt to show that they do not owe their office to their birth or their social status, but that they are truly legitimate.
Finally, social networks make for a more relaxed, less formal form of political communication. We are all familiar with the publication by politicians of items that run the gamut of everyday life, from cake recipes to wedding albums and pictures of pets, all of which are abundantly commented on. Typically, both the posts by campaign staff and the responses by followers mix the personal and the political, the rational and the emotional. On social networks, politicians no longer pose as authority figures, they no longer adopt a statesman-like attitude, but they allow themselves to be cast as regular guys. Informality is the rule.
A ploy to win voters over? Is this really nothing but a tactical move? Quite to the contrary, I believe that the prevalent informalization of political messages is correlated to the transformation of contemporary relationships to authority and power: the expression of the respect and deference due to authority figures has inexorably declined, while the psychological and social proximity between people from all walks of life has simultaneously increased. This is not due to social networks or to technology, but to the long-term transformations of society itself as analyzed by sociologist Norbert Elias. Social networks only provide a framework that sets off these deep-seated transformations. For politicians, therefore, a presence on social networks is not a mere whim, but a vital necessity in an era of informalization.