In order to stay in vogue and surmount competitive obstacles, politicians have always taken advantage of available technologies to gain endorsement and to engineer the consent of their constituents. In the past this meant decidedly undemocratic methods such as “the rack” and “the dunking stool,” but in modern times these have given way to skilled rhetoric, the soapbox, and—a local favorite—the promise of patronage and graft. Inasmuch as we find contemporary incarnations of these technologies at Guantanamo Bay, or the lecterns in the 2008 presidential primary debates, or the city of New Orleans, it may be surprising that the roots of today’s electioneering technology are to be found in a different place altogether: in Al Gore’s invention, the Internet, and its 21st-century progeny, the much vaunted Web 2.0.
What is Web 2.0, you ask. Is it as monumental as AOL 9.0? Yes, at least.
Web 2.0 is the umbrella term given to the complex of Internet technology born from the ooze that trickled out of the dot-com bubble when it burst at the end of the ’90s. For our purposes, this means the interactive web: Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, and, of course, Wikipedia.
These web platforms have sprouted deep roots across North America, dominating the top-10 list of most visited websites. Each of them welcomes tens of millions of visitors every month. With this level of popularity, it isn’t surprising that the 2008 presidential candidates are running with the zeitgeist, bringing in young people with the know-how and go-getter mentality to harness Web 2.0’s political potential.
No 2008 campaign can be separated from its Web 2.0 presence. Candidates are looking for “friends” or “supporters” on MySpace and Facebook, projecting their well-powdered faces on YouTube, and lampooning their adversaries, all for peanuts. Web 2.0 features are more or less embedded in all campaign websites. You can thumb through the photo albums, track the most recent videos hot off the campaign trail, read the blogs, or try to make yourself believe the candidates’ cartoonish autobiographies, which always render them in various colorful versions of the American dream. Follow the signposts to join the campaign, start a local group, or host a party—Barack Obama’s site even features its own interactive “My.BarackObama” platform, where social networking site meets instant messaging system meets pinball. For performing different “actions,” you can compile “points.” With 25 points to my name for creating an account, I am currently tied for 175,844th place. Maybe you can do better.
It’s hard to get rid of the feeling that the campaign trail has been reconfigured with elements of reality television. For candidates, the hard part is tweaking their public images to be as “real” as possible, and this invariably means discounting the accoutrements of the politician. Instead we see dressed-down candidates speaking plainly with down-home American folk. The 2008 candidate must be candid and humble, but possessed of a certain unshakable vision. The return to the Jeffersonian myth of the nation’s rural core figures prominently with some candidates, many of whom show their Americanness through food. There’s nothing more American than bacon-and-egg fundraisers for some politicians, or a steak fry for others—all with online registration available. John Edwards’s aides show us on YouTube how (not) to make a pecan pie, “his favorite,” for the North Carolinian’s birthday.
Shedding the tainted trappings of the politician and coming off as “real” is not as easy as pie, however. The stakes have been raised, as politicians must now maintain their equilibrium and tempered demeanor at virtually all times. When the scripted shoots stop, the camera phones start snapping. One false step will almost certainly be recorded and replayed on YouTube ad infinitum, maybe even mixed and sampled by entrepreneurial DJs. Think Howard Dean’s unsolicited primal wail on MLK Day 2004, an ill-starred enterprise which has since come to be known as the “I have a scream” speech.
Just as the first televised presidential debates in 1960, pitted the exuberant, well tanned John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon’s ill-fitting shirt and sickly pallor, spelling the latter’s doom, the web offers breathtaking new possibilities for election-time sink-or-swim.
The impact of Web 2.0 on the coming election may be a little overstated, to say the least. If you try to measure the Presidential race from the web by couting MySpace “friends” and YouTube “views,” there seems to be a sharp disjuncture with the world of traditional political polling. According to a recent Newsweek poll, front-runner Hillary Clinton is projected to seize 43 percent of the Democratic primary votes against Barack Obama’s distant 24 percent, with a six-percent margin of error. Yet Obama has millions more YouTube views than Clinton and matches 160,000 Facebook supporters to her 51,000, along with 190,000 MySpace friends to her 160,000. In the Republican camp, Ron Paul is far ahead in the virtual world, but barely registers in recent polling.
What’s more, the Internet-savvy demographic is remarkably young, and although the number of 18–29-year-old voters swelled tremendously in 2004 compared to 2000, this group has relatively low voter turnout. Even the popular “Vote or Die” campaign, with its powerful incentive package, couldn’t bring the youth vote up to the national average.
In the final analysis, it seems that the utility of Web 2.0 lies not so much in its ability to definitively swing the vote one way or another, but in its transformation of the way candidates engage with the public.
Marshall Knudson is a second-year in the College majoring in political science and romance languages and literature. His column appears every other Tuesday.