Social nets seen as key in presidential contests

ON BLOGS

October 14, 2007|By Eric Benderoff | Eric Benderoff,Chicago Tribune

Chris Hughes left Silicon Valley's hottest tech company in February to move to Chicago to join another start-up: Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

Only 23 and with a haircut straight from the Beach Boys, Hughes has already been part of one generational shift that is altering the way people use the Internet. Now he hopes his experience as a founder of Facebook can transform politics by harnessing the power of social networks to see if hundreds of thousands of virtual "friends" can help put Obama into the White House.

"This is a huge opportunity to see how social tools can work," he says. "It's a great test of the technology."

If the 2004 campaign was defined in part by homegrown political pundits gaining respectable-size audiences through the blogosphere, the 2008 presidential campaign may very well be remembered as a turning point for social networking as a political tool.

Sites like Facebook and MySpace are known for their diary-like qualities, where users create their own home pages with links to their friends' pages. They share insights on books or rock bands and post pictures or videos of themselves or link to something entertaining on YouTube. These networks have soared in popularity since 2004, with a total of more than 100 million users of MySpace and Facebook.

Already in this long-winded campaign we've seen the impact of the Internet and how social networks can spread messages like wildfire. Two videos, Obama Girl and the 1984 video of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, both unauthorized by the candidates, have been viewed millions of times on YouTube and linked to countless profile pages on social Web sites.

Candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, have put profiles on MySpace, Facebook and a site for professionals, LinkedIn, and built downloadable applications, known as widgets, that supporters place on their profile pages as if they were virtual bumper stickers.

But most people still think of online social networks as places where teenagers and college students compete to have the most friends and swap pictures from beer drinking parties.

The Obama campaign aims to change that, thanks in part to Hughes, who understands that social networks can reach far more people than a whistle-stop tour, yet leave an impression of intimacy with the candidate that only a warm handshake might rival. Now he must convince Obama supporters of all ages that there is value to using a social network.

Other presidential candidates are also experimenting with social tools. At Clinton's and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson's official Web sites, for instance, there are links to Facebook, MySpace, Flickr and other social sites. Clinton's site also has "Team Hillary," a location for supporters to find events, host parties and write blog entries.

At Texas Rep. Ron Paul's site, there's a link to the Republican candidate's channel on Justin.tv, where the candidate can broadcast live from events as well as archive short video clips.

"At this point, everyone has some form of blogging online, or at least commercials linked to YouTube," says David Friedman, president of the central region for Avenue A/Razorfish, an interactive marketing agency. In particular, he finds Clinton's site interesting because it is "very professional," but says Obama "clearly has the most genuine program online right now."

Joe Rospars, the Obama campaign's 26-year-old new-media director, says "250,000 people have created an account" on My.BarackObama.com.

Eric Benderoff writes for the Chicago Tribune. Sun blog columnist Andy Ratner is on vacation.

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