Enthusiasts are claiming social media influenced the US Elections. But we think the reverse is true: the election campaigns have changed social media by maturing it into a mainstream communication tool.
In 2008, social media got onto the radar through the feverish response of its users to the Obama message of change. It was the social media wave behind his narrative which won it for Obama.
This year, it wasn't so much social media that changed the election, but the election that changed social media. The use of the networks to raise money, in addition to spreading a message, signaled the maturation of social media. Millions more Americans were now using social media networks. And the campaigns knew how to get hold of their 2008 support base. The irony was that money raising was mainly to fund advertisements on mainstream channels such as television and radio. That put social media in its place as part of playing field for public debate and activity. It was no longer a contender or saviour - it was simply a legitimate channel.
Here's the three ways we think the US election changed social media.
1. Fund-raising: The political campaigns found the holy grail of social media: a way to monetise it. Like forms of pyramid schemes, the campaigns used the viral and network effect of social media to get people to spread their request for funds. The product was their message and their candidate. The campaigns used the appeal of their candidate, or of fear of the opponent, to encourage people to purchase the vision. The Obama campaign got the network to do the job itself; setting up cloud-based applications which enthusiasts could use to mine their networks. This changed social media because it became a legitimate way to connect with the public for money and activity, not just a place where cheering came from.
2. Vox populi: Recognising the vibrant communities on social media networks, mainstream media tuned them into their broadcasts. They used social media as a way of measuring the opinion of the masses. This empowered social media like never before - it is now the legitimate place to find real expression, on a large scale, of public attitudes. At the same time, social media was kept in its place. Those using it, and commentating on it, often treated the channel as a tool for light hearted or off-beam, expression. For example, when Mitt Romney mentioned Big Bird in one of the televised debates, people set up ‘fake’ BigBird twitter accounts, hashtags, websites, applications and games around the Big Bird concept. These cheap 48-hour phenomenon, provided light entertainment, but framed social media as a kind of wittier multi-media version of talk-radio. This could keep social media at bay from the serious aspects of public life.
3. Expansion of political “membership”: Politicians and media gave users of social media far more opportunity than they had previously to express affiliation for ideologies and political Parties. By liking, retweeting, commenting and clicking, they were given methods of expressing themselves articulately and widely. For the Obama campaign, centralised on one figure, the result was a crowd-sourced support base. This unified many social media users around common values, counteracting the free-for-all and disruptive nature of previous political expression. For the Republicans, with an uncertain central policy position, the result was decentralisation of power. Social media magnified a wide range of views from ‘right wing’ affiliates. This removed power and unity from the candidates’ message. It’s now much harder to be sure who exactly represents the Republican Party - its formal administration or those championing the ideology online.
Social media came of age in 2012, not because it changed the elections, but because the elections changed it. Despite the tinge of triviality in some content, it is now a legitimate, but not dominant, channel for communication and the very real business of public life.