Social media election? Um, if you insist

John Gushue
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If I hear one more pundit calling this the “social media election,” I’m going to holler. Well, maybe not out loud. More likely, I’ll just groan and sip my coffee.

“Canada’s first social media election is on,” proclaimed a Globe and Mail headline at the start of the campaign in March.

Hmm. That’s interesting, because in 2008, and even back in 2006, there was quite a bit of chatter about how Facebook was shaping politics. In 2004 (my, we have had our share of elections in the last seven years), we were on about blogs.

Before that? Well, countless words were uttered on this thing called the Internet, and how it was changing democracy.

To be fair, things have changed. Twitter was certainly around in the last federal election, but scarcely had the presence it does now.

But it’s a bit of a stretch to say this election is the first of its kind. Rather, it’s just different.

I came across interesting data (from Ignite Social Media) that showed that overall activity on social networks is not substantially different now than just over two years ago, or the period right after the last campaign.

What’s changed? Well, some platforms and networks — Twitter, Tumblr and LinkedIn, for instance — are gaining hugely in activity, while others (hello, MySpace and also-rans like Ning and Friendster) are falling off, or disappearing.

That change in activity is playing out in politics, and some developments are obvious. For starters, this is definitely much more of a real-time campaign. It’s also easier for stories from nooks and crannies to get noticed.

I was intrigued to hear political writer Kady O’Malley on CBC Radio’s “The House” this weekend, talking about how revelations about a student who had been expelled from a Conservative rally turned up, in no time flat, a series of other disclosures that kept the story in the news for days.

Similarly, the phrase “rapid response” has been redefined. Political campaigns used to try to counter a message within a news cycle, and a generation ago that was a full day. Now, they may (and often must) fire back within an hour or less, and the burden of a solid response is no less serious.

Meanwhile, here are a few things I’ve noticed so far.

First, while it’s nice to see politicians on Twitter, it’d be even better if they actually said something genuine — or even anything at all. (No tweeting in a few days? Give up.)

Trust me: telling me that you’ve met some nice people or that you’re proud of your riding is plain old filler. Sadly, that’s about as much as you’ll find for some political feeds.

Some politicians’ feeds just don’t ring authentic, and seem like a new way of getting soundbites or speeches spread around. (It said something that Michael Ignatieff’s staff-fuelled Twitter feed kept running during Tuesday night’s debate.)

And here’s a suggestion as the October provincial campaign approaches. Don’t start a Twitter feed and expect the world to beat a path to you overnight. Social networks are built gradually, and the best ones take far longer than the duration of a campaign before they hit their stride. In other words, like a tree, the best time to plant a social media campaign was a long time ago.

One problem I’ve noticed is that many politically minded Tweeters are preaching to the converted. You look at the followers and following lists, for instance, and you often see a limited crowd. While a Facebook group may be a great way to motivate and corral volunteers — the ones who canvass, stuff envelopes and make phone calls — social networks like Twitter are supposed to be about engagement, and reaching out. I’m not seeing that manifest itself … yet.

I’m also bothered by noise and blather — not from the candidates (thank goodness) but from Tweeters working for their respective parties. This habit, which often descends into rudeness and the texting version of yelling, definitely crosses party lines. For goodness sakes, stop the relentless dogging of rhetorical questions! When I scan my feeds — I break them out thematically, to get a sense of what’s going on — I cringe when I see what’s passing as politicking.

Really, I see no difference between someone who sends out repetitious shouts to opposing sides and someone with a megaphone droning on and on outside an office building. The effect will be the same: people will just avoid them.

I don’t want to appear to be dissing social media. Far from it, I see enormous potential, not only in campaigns but in civic life, 12 months of every year.

But so far, I’m not seeing something revolutionary in terms of how digital technologies are being applied to the campaign trail.

But evolutionary? That I can definitely agree with. I’m keeping my eye on what the candidates and the voters do from here until voting day.

John Gushue is an online editor with CBC News in St. John’s.


Organizations: Globe and Mail, CBC News

Geographic location: Canada, March.Hmm

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Recent comments

  • Liam
    April 15, 2011 - 06:28

    Interesting column. I suggest you follow the people and not the politicians. Try #elxn41 on Twitter. There's a LOT going on here that the media is not covering.

  • Gary Kelly
    April 14, 2011 - 14:44

    Great column John. I like what you said about politicians getting into an election and starting a Twitter account. It takes time to develop a relationship in the real world. The same applies to the online world as well.

  • Anon
    April 14, 2011 - 10:17