From Vanity to Transformative Energy

October 25, 2008

Politics, Social Networking

It has been invigorating – and startling – to see how social networking has been used during this election cycle.  When our presidential campaign began (over two years ago), the pinnacle of Internet technology (in politics) was the static website, the email distribution list and the online cash register.  Basically, it was a testament to first-generation web technologies.  Yes, there were exceptions (like some of the forays of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign).  But the de rigeur Internet investments were fairly pedestrian.

Since the last presidential election cycle, there has been a whole lot of maturing that has occurred.  First, the technology itself has matured.  We have gone from unidirectional content publishing to multi-channel advertising and bi-directional communications and involvement.  Today, a supporter can subscribe to any number of channels and/or feeds that interest them.  Followers can: provide their email address, read a candidates’ positions published on a website (or on Facebook or MySpace), or even see speeches on YouTube.  Most politicians have a presence on Twitter (or Friendfeed, if they are truly forward-thinking).  In short, politicians have many ways of getting their message to current and future supporters.

And this is a great start.  But to go from broadcasting information to building a community of involved activits, a candidate must successfully blend Web 2.0 technologies with some personal “connection” to his or her supporters.

Like Howard Dean before him, Barack Obama has been able to capitalize on personal charisma and a fundamental “distrust of the older generation” to build his support base.   If you are active on Twitter, it doesn’t take long to see the “personal” attachment that people have with Obama – regardless of the positions that he espouses.  Indeed, I have seen many “conservative” people who have decided to vote for Obama because he has “connected” with them on more than a policy level.  In many ways, this sense of connectedness is the same thing that Ronald Reagan was able to do with the “Reagan Democrats” during the 1980 campaign.

On the flip-side, John McCain has had little success achieving a sense of connectedness with his supporters.  Most of his supporters are not “connected” to him or the campaign.  Rather, they currently support McCain because they oppose Obama.  In many cases, Republicans support McCain as their second choice candidate; many Huckabee, Romney and Giuliani supporters are only grudging supporters of McCain.   And in many ways, this is so reminiscent of the 1976 campaign where many conservatves only grudgingly supported the candidacy of Gerald Ford.

But there have been two events that have altered the course of the McCaign campaing.  The first was the nomination of Sarah Palin as the party’s vice presidential candidate.  In many ways, Sarah has been able to “connect” to dissatisfied and disillusioned Republicans.  At the same time, she has been able to reach a number of independent voters.  Much of this reach beyond the party failthful is due to her energy, vitality and personal attractiveness.  Indeed, she has been able to reach many people on a personal level.  Indeed, many of the GOP faithful talk about their support for her rather than their support of McCain.

The second event was the elevation of Joe the Plumber.  Through an odd set of circumstances, an “everyman” in Ohio has captured the hearts of many Americans.  Many folks see him (or the ideal he symbolizes) as someone who represents their interests.  They saw an indifferent Obama making decisions that will fundamentally alter their futures.  And many folks don’t like that.  Uncertainty often breeds the kind of fear that can affect elections.  And the Joe the Plumber issue has created a great deal of uncertainty about Obama.

Fundamentally, both events demonstrate the simple fact that people want to support the familiar.  They want to connect with their leaders.  When McCain can offers two surrogates for their need to connect, many folks will gravitate towards those surrogates.  When Obama offers himself as the person that can relate to mainstream America, then the polls swing in his favor.  In short, people want to connect with their leaders.

And modern technology is all about “connectedness” and community.  When systems and technolgoies draw folks together, they foster this spirit of community.  And most Americans will willingly invest in communities of shared interests – whether they be Sunday School classes, churches, local school booster clubs or even political parties.  People want to belong.  And they will work for that sense of belonging.

In many ways, the use of technology in politics has finally moved from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0.  In the first generation, technology was used to fulfill the vanity of the candidate (or his/her followers).  But with the advent of social networking and Web 2.0, we are truly seeing involvement of the citizens – and unleashing of their effort and energies.

In the final analysis, we have been created with a need to join together and serve one another.  The rock band Switchfoot says it well: “We were meant to live for so much more; have we lost ourselves?”  There is a fundamental part of the human heart that needs to be part of something bigger than our own selfish interests.  We want to tell our children and our grandchildren how we were part of something transformative.  Indeed, I believe that this is part of what made “the greatest generation” so great: they overcame econmic hardships as well as the tyrranies of totalitarian dictators.  They were transformed from their pety and selfish concerns into a community of shared purpose and vision.

In politics, we can reach beyond ourselves – if we try.  And with technology, we can reach others in amazing and innovative ways.  But it is not the method that matters.  In the end, it is the message that must transform us. In our current election, I pray that everyone takes a step back and asks whether they are supporting the position or the package.  If we are supporting the package, please understand that we are often disappointed when we unwrap a package and learn that it is not everything that we had hoped for.  Nevertheless, the act of reaching beyond yourself is one of the most transformative acts you will ever intitiate.

So get involved.  Think and pray about your vote.  And always remember to be grateful for the awesome privilege of getting to decide your own future.

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