This election season, I unofficially nominate Prez Barack Obama as our coolest president yet. (Though, let’s be honest, JFK was pretty boss.) I say this because Barack has become “one of us” and joined us in the full Web 2.0 experience. He’s on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and I don’t even know what else. He has created a Spotify playlist. In August he even posted a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), effectively proving to us that he is the first truly web-savvy President.
Not only is he on these social network sites–Mitt Romney uses social media as well–he hasn’t lost his humor and charm that made America fall in love with him back in 2008. The Barack Obama Tumblr probably is the best indicator of this, where he regularly reblogs humorous gifs and often interacts with other Tumblr users. Over on Twitter, he displays his sass with a picture of his chair saying “This seat’s taken.”
I mention all this, not as an endorsement for Obama but as a commentary on how social media has influenced the biggest choice Americans makes every four years. We can now personally interact with the President on the internet which was unheard of 10 years ago; that is how integrated social network sites are in our society. 200 years ago, voters heard about presidential candidates through word of mouth and public appearances. Today, our president can follow us on Twitter.
Interestingly, the trend of Presidential Candidates using social media to garner public interest and gain the young vote started with John Kerry when he was running for President in 2004. This tidbit of information was uncovered by Rebecca J. Rosen of The Atlantic yesterday when she reported that Kerry used Friendster, “portraying himself as a fun-loving, Hostess-chocolate-cupcake-eating everyman” to connect with voters. George W. Bush didn’t jump on the bandwagon because “Friendster [didn’t] fit in with his Internet strategy” (Bloomberg Businessweek). He did however create a Myspace.
Let us explore the rundown of how Friendster and Myspace fared after those years. Actually, I can tell you in simple terms: they fizzled and died.
But really though, Friendster and Myspace actually did important work in creating social media network sites the way they are today. According to danah m. boyd and Nicole B. Ellison in “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” Friendster–launched in 2002–was one of the earlier social network sites to gather a huge following; it was “designed to help friends-of-friends meet.” There was much controversy surrounding the site, however as the site’s creators did not listen to the users’ wants and needs and started restricting their activities. Myspace was then launched in 2003 to compete with Friendster and many of its users joined after feeling betrayed and disenfranchised by Friendster (215-216).
What made these sites unique was that they publicly displayed their friends lists and allowed users the opportunity to edit their lists and explore those of their friends. This is an element that exists in the major social network sites today like Facebook and Twitter. (Tumblr gives you the option to display the blogs you follow but you can block that.) It’s this element in social media sites that Nancy K. Baym of “Personal Connections In The Digital Age” would argue fosters social interactivity. Baym defines this interactivity–one of seven elements that define social media–as “the ability of a medium to enable social interaction between groups or individuals” (7).
This ability of interacting with people in a new and exciting way was huge for a presidential candidate like John Kerry who was perceived as boring and had not yet captivated his younger voters. As right wing as he was, Bush may have won because of his charisma and ability to rile a crowd. Yet, Kerry was ahead of his peers and made the effort to jump on the social media bandwagon without the correct tools to succeed in it. Today, politics has gotten smarter with social media and the sites themselves have matured. They have taken so much a hold on the public imagination, though, that it would be preposterous for a politician to not have a Twitter account. So much has changed since Kerry created a Friendster profile.
Not only does the President have an unspoken requirement to have many social media accounts, he must handle them adeptly. We don’t even consider this change that would have seemed amazing 10 years ago. The President regularly interacting and joking with the public? We can get daily messages from him in under 140 characters? In the 2004 elections, this trend was just starting and it has grown to unimaginable heights. Heights that we consider completely normal now. Baym calls this phenomena the domestication of technology, in which “what once seemed so marvelous and strange…is now so ordinary as to be invisible” (45). This is true in much of our everyday life as social media weaves itself into the fabric of our lives. We consider it a given.
Along with the domestication that we experience with social media, there is another theory that Baym explores called social shaping, in which machines influence us and we influence machines. We were the ones that created social media and we have built it to what it is today so that it has garnered so much influence… influence that has the ability to change our decision of who will be the next President of the United States.
Rosen, the author of the article, would agree with these theories in that they explain the vast social re-shaping that we have experienced with social media. Her tone, when describing the candidates’ use of social media is sarcastic. She describes how in the days of the 2004 election, social networking was quite new but John Kerry was the first to adopt it but it is clear, however, that he didn’t do it quite well. The last zinger of the article is that Bush didn’t join social media networks because he didn’t find them relevant–perhaps an allusion to his subsequent presidential term(s). Rosen herself is on Twitter and she is regularly tweeting, further proving the point that she agrees with the view that social media technology is changing the world and influencing some of our most important decisions, and we are riding along, meeting every turn.
For other supplementary reading, check out this inspiring article by Rebecca J. Rosen about a Deaf guy who gets hearing aids and uses Reddit to find out what music he should experience for the first time.