In April, Barack Obama was creaming the competition in the MySpace popularity contest. Then his campaign decided to wrest the from the volunteer who had run it for the past two-and-a-half years, sacrificing 160,000 friends who had signed on in that time. Obama's team rushed to recover, but the stumble allowed Hillary Clinton to pass Obama in early May, with more than 57,000 friends to Obama's 45,000 new pals. Tommy Thompson trailed with 4,000 friends. Rudy Giuliani's profile was mysteriously set to "private."
Why do we care which candidate is most popular on MySpace? These tidbits are interesting because we--the press and the public--are trying to understand how the participatory Web will influence the 2008 campaign. Over the next 18 months we'll witness the positive, the negative and the strange dimensions of Politics 2.0.
On the positive side, there will be new opportunities for unmediated dialogue between candidates and voters. Candidates are already making a big show of mingling with the masses on social networking sites, and citizens will play an active role in debates via the Internet.
The recently launched D.C. politics site Politico (politico.com) co-sponsored a Republican presidential debate on May 3, and in the preceding weeks challenged users to come up with nerve-rattling questions for the candidates. During the debate, users voted on the final questions to be asked by Executive Editor Jim VandeHei.
YouTube has launched a Q&A project in its You Choose '08 channel, in which each candidate will be invited to pose a question to the community. For a week people will be able to upload their own video responses, and ostensibly the candidates will view them and reply. Mitt Romney and John Edwards took the first turns, asking respectively, "What do you believe is America's single greatest challenge..?" and "What are you going to do to bring about change?" The candidates' questions were heavily viewed--430,000 for Romney's in 11 days--with dozens of video replies. Yahoo!'s election portal has a similar project with text questions and answers; a question on health care posed by Clinton elicited 38,000 replies.
Whether the candidates will actually engage with voters through these platforms remains to be seen. It's easy to post a video or toss a question to the community, but a true dialogue requires a commitment that most candidates probably will not be able to keep. The public conversations are valuable, but reports of candidate participation are likely to be exaggerated.
Blogger and new-media pundit Jeff Jarvis has launched a site, PrezVid.com, to track the campaign "through the eyes of YouTube."
On the negative side, the 2008 campaign will bring a flood of amateur and faux-amateur Internet attack ads that will put professional spin doctors to shame. Already one of the campaign's biggest stories was the "Vote Different" mashup that appeared on YouTube in March and portrayed Clinton as a Big Brother figure in a 1984 Macintosh commercial. The author worked for a technology company connected with Obama's campaign, although he submitted the video on his own. In April, MoveOn.org made an ad out of an unguarded (some would say stupid) moment in which McCain joked about bombing Iran.
Much good can come from the fact that not a "macaca" will be uttered without the world knowing about it. But there's also danger that images and sound bites will be excerpted and remixed in misleading ways.
Finally we arrive at the stranger part of the online campaign, and back to MySpace. A tour of the candidates' MySpace profiles shows that each campaign is trying hard to look good in this new arena--some with rather awkward and gaudy results. They've also set up outposts on portals and video sites, not to mention their own official sites.
McCain hosts his own social network called McCainSpace, and visitors to Obama's site can set up their own My.BarackObama.com personalized pages. Almost everybody's blogging like there's no tomorrow. And they're getting plenty of attention for it.
Of course the candidates themselves are doing very little of the publishing and blogging. For all the up-close and personal feelings social networks evoke, they're also strategic tools used by campaigns to generate donations, databases and media attention. It's anybody's guess how much time the candidates actually spend contemplating their online personae.
The pressure to impress the Web crowd increased when MySpace announced plans to hold a virtual primary on January 1 and 2 for all MySpace members in the U.S. According to comScore Media Metrics, 85 percent of the site's 65 million monthly visitors are of voting age; CEO Chris DeWolfe predicts that the site "will give America its first presidential primary winner in 2008." The vote will likely receive a fair amount of media coverage, and it'll be interesting to see how the candidates handle it.
The online campaign has generated thousands of video clips, bazillions of blog posts, dozens of news stories--and we're just getting warmed up.