In this presidential election year, there’s hardly a political campaign, from congressional candidate to big city mayor, that isn’t using at least one social network. Some are even using them to great effect, bringing in small-dollar donations and a wealth of supporter data.
Plus, sites like Facebook and Youtube are taking highly visible roles in the election cycle, with FOX and CNN using social media indexes in an attempt to give viewers a sense of candidates’ popularity. News anchors focus on which candidate is the subject of the most Google searches, or who has the most Facebook fans. Twitter recently unveiled its “Twitter Political Index.”
But none of this represents a truly new development in the online social network medium. And none is truly helpful in getting to know a candidate. Unless newer services like Pinterest or Instagram decide to make a foray into politics (very doubtful), then we won’t see any new media tools unleashed this cycle. I predict that what will emerge from the 2012 cycle, instead, is a new understanding of how to use the social media tools we already have.
At least, that’s what I told a reporter from the Wall Street Journal who called recently, asking about politicians’ use of Twitter accounts. I told him what everyone in the tech community already knows: candidates for elected office have got to be genuine when they use social media.
"People who are in digital have a pretty acquired taste for what's authentic, and what's not authentic,” he quoted meas saying. “It's got to be real, or it's almost better to not do anything at all.”
But I don’t think we’re quite there yet.
Every presidential election cycle brings new media developments, but campaigns rarely know how to use the new tools to their greatest effect on the first go ‘round. Radio was available in 1920, but candidates weren’t heard making radio-specific speeches until 1928. Television was the new medium in the 1952 election cycle, but it wasn’t until 1960 that John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon debated live on TVs in Americans’ living rooms. Similarly, Facebook and Twitter entered into existence prior to the 2008 cycle, but I predict we won’t see true, effective use of these tools until the 2014 mid-terms and the 2016 cycle.
In 2012, these sites are not yet being employed in a way that transforms the types of candidates running for elected office. Followers, friends, and voters are not yet seeing the true authenticity that these platforms make possible.
Personally, I am excited and eager to see the first true social media candidate. Imagine a politician with no buffers between he or she and the average voter. No campaign staff manning the Twitter account. No surrogate stepping in to block and tackle when faced with a tough question. Instead of stilted talking points and links to archaic press releases and TV ads, voters will get a new-style, honest look at a candidate the same way we did when radio revealed Albert Smith’s New York accent (he lost to Herbert Hoover) and JFK’s ability to project leadership through his good looks (he defeated Nixon).
We already see glimpses of this kind of candidate. Take a look at Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, for example, who interacted directly with voters during his primary run for the San Diego mayor’s office. Fletcher used Twitter in a way that showed him unfettered: as a fitness freak with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a passion for his two adopted sons. He even posted a photo, mid-campaign, of his bloodied forehead after an accidental run-in with his surfboard.
The true media development in 2012 will not be a new tool, but instead will be the realization that the proper way to use the social media tools we have today is to be authentic. And part of that realization will be that we’re not quite there yet.
Ed. Note: Bryan Merica is partner and co-founder of ID Media Partners, a Sacramento company providing social media consulting. The company's long-time clients include Capitol Weekly.