PJ Rey and I have been following the 2012 presidential campaign on this blog with social media in mind. We watch as President Obama and the republican contenders try to look social-media-y to garner dollars and votes. However, the social media use has thus far been more astroturfing than grassroots. There have been more social media photo-opts to appear tech-savvy than using the web to fundamentally make politics something that grows from the bottom-up. Presidential politics remain far more like Britannica than Wikipedia.
But this might all change, at least according to Thomas Friedman yesterday in the New York Times. He describes Americans Elect, a non-profit attempting to build an entire presidential campaign from the ground up. This might be our first glimpse of an open and social presidential web-based campaign. From their website,
Americans Elect is the first-ever open nominating process. We’re using the Internet to give every single voter — Democrat, Republican or independent — the power to nominate a presidential ticket in 2012. The people will choose the issues. The people will choose the candidates. And in a secure, online convention next June, the people will make history by putting their choice on the ballot in every state.
If FDR was the radio president, JFK the television president, Obama is not the social media president. Yes, Obama participated in a Twitter town hall and a Facebook summit in an attempt to seem hip to social media. However, as I wrote before, both of these events as well as much of Obama’s social media presence come from the top-down, in stark contrast to the social media ethic of grassroots communications from the bottom-up. Obama has largely used the Internet as if it were a television: a one-way broadcast medium. In fact, this leads me to the idea that perhaps executive power and social media are antithetical in the first place.
Much the same could be said for the republican candidates. However, they might be a little ahead of the democrats in using Twitter. Obama has responded by beginning to type his own tweets.
All of this stands in contrast to the Americans Elect mission to bypass the top-down structures of the existing political parties. The Internet allows for the possibility of a Wikipedia president, one whom reflects the priorities and concerns of a crowd that also determines the rules of how the campaign operates and spends its money. As Friedman concludes,
Write it down: Americans Elect. What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life — remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in. Watch out.
I share Friedman’s attitude that the old political machine might face serious competition from the web. It may not be in 2012 and it may not be by Americans Elect, but it very well may occur. We can now better visualize how the web may fundamentally change politics as much as it has changed other institutions from publishing to music to pornography.