Why politicians still don’t get the real power of social networks

Did anyone read yesterday’s article in the London edition of the Financial Times about the use of social networks in the US presidential election?

I only ask because I did, and found it to be pretty un-insightful. OK, if I want up-to-the-minute commentary on social networking and politics I might turn to David Weinberger rather than the newspaper, but from the lumpen headline: “Battle for blogosphere ballot box heats up” to the closing para, little light was shed on what US candidates were actually doing with social networks.

First up the piece told us how many Facebook and MySpace friends the top Democrat and Republican candidates have. Then we got this insight from strategist, Thomas Gensemer, managing director of Blue State Digital:

“You can be putting a message out there in far more powerful ways than just e-mailing or on your own website … Instead of pressing ‘send’ to half a million people today, it’s activating a message that will be active for days thereafter”

Hmm. Enlightening.

Maybe Peter Daou, head of Hilary Clinton’s online campaign team can offer us a better explanation:

“More and more the internet is becoming essential to the political process”

Maybe not.

The most interesting questions are raised by the article’s critical voice of reason, Colin Nagy, director of Source Communications.

His argument is that:

“Collecting friends is superficial and doesn’t require any real effort on behalf of the friend …Would you rather have 20,000 friends who do nothing, donate nothing, or 10 friends who are active, crazy fundraisers?”

And he has hit the nail on the head. The real question is how do you get your 20,000 friends to become “active, crazy, fundraisers”.

The answer is: you change the way you do politics. I’ve said time and again that simply pushing out the same, tired, two-faced political crap that most 12 year-olds can see through but doing so via exciting new tools like social networks won’t work.

What politicians and their campaign teams need to grasp is the change in power dynamics within social networks. It’s a flat structure rather than a top down or even slightly hierarchical network. Rather than the network being there for them, they are there for the network.

People, like Colin Nagy don’t get it. He expects his 20,000 friends to do something for him or his candidate, when in reality they want him to do something for them. And isn’t that what politics is all about?

XP: edemocracy Update

Technorati tags: US Presidential elections, social networking, Financial Times, Hilary Clinton, Peter Daou, Colin Nagy, Thomas Gensemer


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  2. colin nagy says:

    Hi Simon:
    Re: your concluding sentence about my not “getting it”
    It should be noted that my comment in this piece (which I think was used as the necessary contrarian perspective in this article) simply asserts that appearances can be deceiving.
    20,000 friends on a social network may be on first glance a strong indicator of support. However, the only cost for the “friend” is .5 seconds of their time in clicking the add button.
    These decisions are often subject to fleeting judgements and not a substantive endorsement based around policy, ideology, etc.
    I wasn’t trying to speak to the broader point you refer to.
    All best,

  3. Hi Colin. Thanks for stopping by. Point taken and I agree entirely with what you’re saying… I was probably taking a newspaper article at face value to make a point!

  4. So what’s new? When have politicians really ever got to grips with the communicationss zeitgeist? There is too often a naked opportunism (aha, here’s another fundraising channel/ mass communication tool/ way to look or talk like young people blah blah blah) that conceals a profound mis-understanding of the way that politics now plays out and the way that the world sees politics and politicians. Our world may be flattening. They are still – for the most part – living in pyramids.

  5. Does that make me an optimist then? I think your point is accurate but I live in hope that there will come a tipping point when politicians *have* to engage on citizens’ terms.
    Interesting point to consider: as in business, we traditionally paid MPs to do their job on our – the voter’s – behalf. Now, do we need them when interact access and skills makes it easy for us to research issues, build support, lobby/campaign and shape policy/legislation. Will there come a point when an MP’s role is ‘crowdsourced’?

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