Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Obama, McCain, and Facebook

One of the changes wrought by Howard Dean in the 2004 campaign was the use of the Internet for political discourse and organization. Without the sophisticated ground game of Barack Obama, however, Dean's people-powered movement only went so far.

Still, the Internet has become more important to the candidates. Obama used the Internet to help outraise Hillary Clinton. And then there are the social networking sites. All the candidates had and have web pages and most everyone had acccounts on Facebook and MySpace, not to mention, Twitter.

Why? It's those darn kids. Many young people now communicate more and more online, have fewer landlines, and are an untapped demographic, still voting at levels well below other age groups, making a tempting target. Other sites have discussed the Internet phenomenon in more depth, so here I want to take a moment to look at the semiotics of Obama's Facebook site and for sake of comparison, John McCain's as well. Looking at these sites shows both the sources of Obama's power and the limits of a medium that requires candidates to conform to the design specifications of the site.

Design. While there are variants between candidates, seemingly the whole point of Facebook's design (at least to this non-user) is to make it simple and easy to use, a template format that can take little tinkering. But in doing so, there is an inevitable sameness, a variant on the old frame design used early in web design. I was also surprised after becoming familiar with social networking through MySpace how uncluttered and clean Facebook was; that despite its popularity with young people, how in its essence, it is a very no nonsense site (though users can certainly nonsense it up!).

For a political candidate, this template is both boon and bane. What does it say that both McCain and Obama have similar pages?

The message behind the design seems to be that in some ways we are all equal, or that we start off the same, a message of basic (technological) humanity, that the candidates are not much different than those who look at the page (of course, we don't have hired staffers to run our pages either). It implies, as does the idea behind the site itself, that friends are just a click away. But it could also signal when looking at two politicians that the two are not so different from one another, which is not a message either candidate is trying to send. Still, even with the restaints that a Facebook page necessarily has, it's not so far from what a candidate would want in a page--a self-chosen photo, some basic information, and links to other information.

Content. Almost everything is the same here, save for the campaign photo that Obama used (which doesn't work as well as McCain's standard issue photo). Note that Obama has more than seven times the supporters as McCain, not surprising for a candidate so oriented toward the young, but much different than polls that have them almost deadlocked.

Content is as restricted as design, and in fact, is not completely controlled by the candidates. Note one of the supporters that McCain has highlighted--the lower right hand corner shows an Obama supporter!

Looking more closely at the Obama content section, where it lists his favorites in a variety of subjects, there are a few surprises--who knew he liked Moby Dick?--but very little that would seemingly disqualify a candidate for office. There are some basic rules for being on Facebook, rules that are even more strict for someone seeking public office. But even though his site might not reveal all that much, it is convenient for users to find out more information, link to videos, and more importantly for the Obama campaign, pass the site on to other Facebook friends and be a willing recipient for what additional information and other material the Obama campaign wants to share.

Why Obama Has the Advantage. It's less to do with the campaign than the medium. Democrats in general have done better with the Internet than Republicans for a variety of reasons, but largely because of recent political demographic trends. There's really not much difference between the two Facebook pages, and that's deliberate on the part of Facebook. It's probably smart for McCain to even have such a page, because it does suggest a politician, even if he gets a few giggles for supposedly being too old for Facebook, at least cognizant of the latest technological trends. Still, as one can see by Obama's huge advantage in supporters (as of earlier this year), that it goes hand in hand with Obama's dominant use of the Internet.

In a while, I'll look at Obama's MySpace and YouTube pages and compare them with other candidates.

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