"Digital Handshakes on Virtual Receiving Lines"
Personal Democracy Forum
18 May 2007
[This is a rough unedited crib of the actual talk]
Think about the publics that you know, the publics where politics occur. Gatherings like this... conference halls, shopping malls, political rallies, etc. How do politics take place in these spaces? Obviously, speeches are a part of it, but there's more that happens in these publics. At the very simplest level, there's a lot of shaking hands with everyday people. Ideally, there's a lot of listening to people's stories... Always, there's presence. Presence has been a critical component of political discourse because it allows people to connect to and relate with politicians. Through shared presence, politicians are made "real."
To my dismay, politicians have primarily treated the digital world as another broadcast medium similar to TV. It's about putting up structured, formalized, formal content for others to consume wholesale. We've seen significant shifts over the last couple of elections, but only certain structural considerations are understood. In 2004, political campaigns started realizing that they could make money off of the people that were online. In other words, the digital people existed in so much as their credit cards existed. More recently, candidates are beginning to loosen up and realize that they can't have full control over their content, but this is more about content than it is about people. This morning, Larry provided numerous examples of how people are mucking with political content.
I would like to argue that there's another way of thinking about the digital world... as a networked public where people live their lives. This is most visible through sites like MySpace and Facebook, but is also true of blogs and YouTube and other online communities. These are not simply spaces of information dissemination, but they are networked publics. They are places where people are gathering en masse to do all sorts of things that they normally do in public places.
If you want to understand networked publics, turn to the young people. What on earth are they doing spending so many hours on sites like MySpace and Facebook? By and large, they're hanging out with their peers... they're socializing, sharing content, goofing around (for better or worse). They create profiles to have digital presence and they use content to mark their identity.
Candidates are rushing to these spaces to create profiles and mark their spot in the social network sites. Unfortunately, i feel as though most candidates misunderstand what's going on there. They're using the sites as a platform, not a public space. Don't get me wrong - they are perfectly fine platforms but they are barely scratching the surface at effectiveness.
Consider the "friending" mechanism. Social network sites allow you to list others as FRIENDS. Politicians are primarily using this to see how many friends they can gather. Most political campaigns want to sign people up so that they can count them and showcase how many people they might have voting for them.
This is all fine and well, but this practice shows little understanding of how people - young people in particular - engage with their "friends." First of all, friends are to be collected. Young people add friends for a variety of different reasons. Much of their collecting is identity-driven. Politicians are used as a marker of identity to be shown off like a badge. Connecting to Barack or McCain or Hillary is all about staking one's identity in relation to political life. Many users are friends with multiple candidates because they want to show their active engagement in politics.
Yet, are these the people that political campaigns really want to go after? When i interview young people about their engagement with the political profiles, i find that these are already the hyper-motivated, going-to-vote young people. This isn't driving change. I worry that political campaigns are thinking that they are more important than they are because of how many friends they have. Don't get me wrong - digital friendship is important. These are the candidates' "fans." But simply having a digital presence doesn't convert people. Simply having a profile on MySpace does not convince the under-30s to vote for you.
There are other reasons for which people collect Friends on the site. When you have 900+ of them, you start losing track of all of the folks you've friended. You start focusing on the ones who actually create an active presence. At the same time, the 900+ are the people that you imagine to be your audience... so you keep them in mind as you engage. But when those imagined folks become active, then they are at the forefront of your mind. They are also at the forefront of your friends' mind.
And the primary way that this happens is through the MySpace comments. Real friends leave comments or wall messages. These are pithy remarks that are publicly displayed on one's profiles. Getting comments makes you look cool. Thus, there's a lot of begging friends to leave comments. Comments create status. Imagine what would happen if politicians SINCERELY reached out to their "friends" and started commenting? Whenever the rockstars do this, the teens go wild. For some of the most engaged political teens, this would be the biggest energizer. All of a sudden, they'd go from being one of 9000 friends that a person has to someone who leaves a message and is visible by all of that person's friends, many of whom are probably *not* connected to the candidate. Whenever celebrities begin engaging with their fans, their fans become more engaged, spend more time talking to their friends about the celebrity. Could this work for politicians?
Most campaigns hire polling companies to collect data. Yet, if you look at MySpace, Facebook, and the blogs, you'd find an unbelievable array of young people expressing their desires and needs and frustrations, not in a tabulated formula kind of way, but in a heartfelt experienced way. Imagine what would happen if the campaigns started tracking some of this content and the candidates took the time to respond every once in a while? Pithy response are all that's needed. Or quoted and linked to everyday citizens to respond? Talk about rockstar attention.
Whenever i suggest this to campaigns, i'm told that politicians don't have time for this, that it's easier to broadcast. No doubt it's easier to broadcast, but it's not nearly as effective as meaningful encounters. Politicians know that they have to travel state-to-state to talk to people on their own terms in their own world. Well, for much of the under-30 population, a huge part of their public life is online. Why are politicians not taking the time to do this? This is what i mean when i say that it's time to start digitally shaking hands.
It's not about the formalized encounters... it's about the everyday saying hello and really meaning it. It's about reaching out to people and making them feel special. The under 30 crowd wants to be made special. They expect it. People have been telling them all their lives that they are special, they are the best, they can be anything that they want to be, go go go! They've grown up believing that they're the most important thing on the planet but, by and large, politicians treat them simply as numbers. They want to feel good about the candidates, they want to believe that the candidates care about them. Celebrities are tremendously talented at giving them this feeling and they *love* the celebrities. Yet, by and large, they have no love for the politicians. They don't believe that politicians care about them.
It's also tricky because public life as we know it is disappearing. There are very few non-commercial spaces to simply hang out outside of the major metropolitans. This is even worse for young people who are often restricted from accessing those spaces... pubs for the under-21s... curfew and trespassing laws, etc. They haven't been socialized into public life... they don't know it. But they've created a different public environment through the digital world. And that public is quite different than the publics that we are traditionally used to. Consider the four properties that i often talk about - persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences. These are properties that most celebrities and politicians have been forced to handle for decades, but teenagers are just learning... still, they're growing up with those dynamics and maybe we need to learn from them.
All this said, let's imagine a world where we took advantage of the broadcast technologies AND began recognizing that there's an entirely new culture of networked publics emerging. Now, let's figure out how we can digitally shake hands, simply so that we can begin engaging this community on their terms because, goddess knows, they aren't going to voting on hegemonic terms.