July 31st, 2007
Cross-posted on techPresident
Some interesting conclusions in a preview of a study of presidential candidates and social networking sites to be released by two Bentley College (Mass.) professors in August. For instance, the authors note that the different demographics of MySpace on one hand and YouTube and Facebook on the other show a generation gap favoring certain candidates: Barak Obama and Ron Paul far outshine the other candidates in their parties on YouTube (and Obama on Facebook) but are much less ahead on MySpace, whose audience is more diverse and not as dominated by students and recent graduates. The authors are also not the first to note the disconnect between social networking standing and broader popularity:
The Paul, and to a lesser extent, Obama, examples show that a dominant online presence does not necessarily convert to a commensurate standing in offline polls or campaign contributions. Similarly, a weak online presence relative to other challengers need not preclude reaching the top of the polls, as Giuliani’s numbers show. Of course, these data can not answer the most important question about the role of the Internet in 2008: are the Paul and Obama campaigns doing much better than they would be if they did not have a dominant online presence? Or, would Giuliani be further ahead of the pack if his online presence were stronger?
The researchers also look at the specific features the candidates are using on their profiles:
Although Clinton, Obama and Paul have the most Facebook supporters, their profiles have not gone beyond the basic features: contact, personal, education and work information, plus posts and photos. Supporters are responsible for their long lists of wall posts, notes and affiliated groups. In this sense, Facebook popularity is unearned. It derives from viral marketing principles rather than active maintenance and exploitation of features and content on the site itself.
A critique: the authors consistently refer to “internet strategies” and “online presence,” but they’re really only looking at a small piece of the broad world of online politics. A better measure of “online presence” would take into account blog mentions, online fundraising, email list size, membership in candidates’ own campaign-specific social networks and the number of active volunteers recruited through the web. Also, don’t forget online-enabled offline activity such as downloaded neighborhood walklists and virtual phone banks.
The authors’ narrow focus, while useful for looking at social networking sites as tools, makes it difficult to draw broader conclusions, for instance when they state that, “The translation of internet strategies into votes may be minimal.” Of course it may, but this study can’t tell us much about that, since it’s only looking at a tiny piece of the equation.
And, I’d argue that a candidate’s social networking prominence is one of the less important parts of an Internet strategy — those of us in the online advocacy world who’ve tried to convert MySpace friends into active campaigners have generally found a very low response rate, for instance, and candidates have not exactly struck gold on these sites, either — the vast bulk of their fundraising comes through their own websites and email lists. Let’s not confuse the obvious parts of online campaigning with the most effective — a point you may have heard before.