Candidates and Social Networks: Generation Gaps and “Unearned” Status

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.


Written by
Colin Delany
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1 comment
  • I think one thing you have to look at is third parties. In 2004 over a million votes went to third party candidates who were disillusioned or uninterested in the two major parties. Ron Paul is undoubtedly tapping into the nearly 400,000 libertarian voters in 2004 and Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates might well be tapping into the nearly 500,000 Nader voters

    An important thing to know is 1) how many of those people giving money to Obama & Paul are registered with their party 2) how many of those people are eligible to vote for those candidates in primaries.

    My guess is Paul would lose out from this more than Obama. I live in NY, you can give money to whomever you like and sign up for their friends lists and Facebook & YouTube but you cannot vote for them in the primaries unless you are a member of their party. Each state is different but my guess might also be that if these are college students or new voters or fringe types they might not even be aware yet that they cannot vote in some primaries.

    So converting all that “online support” into voting might not only be difficult in just getting people to show up, it might also be difficult in that even if they show up they might not be able to vote in a primary in some states. (They might not even be registered at all)