Facebook-era politics: more talking? or just more clicking?

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This blog has a post talking about a panel discussion hosted by NYU entitled “How the Web is Changing American Politics,” which featured Arianna Huffington, among others. (Politics group, I tried to see if this was on your blog/ wiki but couldn’t find it…sorry if I’m duplicating anything!) From the blogger’s account, it seems like it was all about how great Obama’s campaign has been about using Facebook and other social networking sites to his advantage — rather than about a more fundamental impact on politics. Then again, maybe online social networking IS a fundamental change in politics. This post raises a few questions about Facebook-era politics and its implications.

First, in social networking sites’ advent onto the political scene, are we entering an era where Americans wear their votes on their sleeves much more than before? And if so, does that matter?

We’ve been talking a lot about how grassroots approaches are more en vogue than ever, in part because of the Web…but I wonder if the other side of that is that voters “pick sides” more conspicuously — by joining Facebook groups, becoming a “supporter” of their favored politician, etc. (I know I have been much more up front about my allegiances this time around, largely because of Facebook.) This may not be a bad thing if it means more people are engaging with the issues and contributing to the political debate. On the other hand, I think there’s a legitimate concern that social networking sites might lead to politics becoming more of a superficial popularity contest. Now that people can broadcast their political preferences with the click of a button, I see the potential for quite a “bandwagon” effect. Ultimately, will the benefits from increased political participation outweigh the potential harm of fostering (or deepening) a “herd mentality” among voters?

Second (and harder to answer): is Web political involvement (including on Facebook) as meaningful as “real world” political involvement? When people join politicians’ Facebook groups, are they strengthening democratic ideals? Or encouraging a sort of “democracy-lite” society? (In this respect, we run into a familiar question: is the Web a substitute for or add-on to real-world behavior/ media/ relationships?)

NYT columnist Thomas Friedman has one view, expressed in this article that appeared in the Times last fall. Trippi (who thinks the internet has encouraged campaigns to engage people in “real dialogue”) and DW seem to have a different view. In Broadcasting and the Voter’s Paradox, DW (who will kill me for quoting from his writings) says: “Voting is gloriously paradoxical. Each person gets one and only one vote, equal to everyone else’s. When we vote, we are mere faces in the crowd, yet we rejoice in our mere-ness. Yet with that one vote, we express what is unique about us.” And later: “We don’t yet know what the effect will be now that we have remembered that democracy is about connecting as much as about standing alone in a voting booth facing a lonely, existential decision.” So he seems to think Web involvement may end up being MORE meaningful in some ways.

Will voting post-Facebook still involve expressing “what is unique about” ourselves? Or will we veer too sharply toward becoming “mere faces in the crowd” of our Facebook groups? Will we really do more talking and “connecting”? or just more clicking?

5 Comments

  1. skass

    April 16, 2008 @ 10:01 am

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    In reference to the second question, I believe Facebook-type political allegiance is an addition to, rather than a substitute for, genuine political engagement. Seems unlikely to me that people who would have been very involved would consider publicly declaring their allegiance online a sufficient degree of involvement. But that first question is a doozy. The bandwagon effect is just fine if it is justified (i.e., if people do their homework before jumping on it) but there is a high risk that people won’t do their homework.

  2. bepa

    April 17, 2008 @ 10:17 am

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    I’d like to think that Facebook is also being used to help bring political issues to the forefront that would otherwise get lost in the shuffle.

    I think Facebook has the potential to help balance out lobbying by big time players in that it brings together the small time ones. I do think there is a risk though, that it will get people who aren’t fully aware of the issue blindly supporting an issue because their friends do.

  3. Kristin Gorski

    April 17, 2008 @ 9:53 pm

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    I’m the author of the blog you link to in the first line of your post (many thanks, BTW).

    The NYU panel did cover much more than the social networking/Facebook aspects of the election. I wrote my post looking primarily at the social networking angle because that’s my main interest at this point — I’m writing articles about the election and social media for the Huffington Post’s Off The Bus (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/off-the-bus/).

    Other points discussed were the YouTube debates, how mainstream media has incorporated blogs into their reporting, and the Tibetan bloggers/Twitter users. There is a video of the panel at GroundReport.com if you’d like to see more about it.

  4. FreieNetze.de » Links für den 19.04.2008

    April 19, 2008 @ 5:22 am

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    […] The Web Difference – Facebook-era politics: more talking? or just more clicking? […]

  5. nikae

    April 20, 2008 @ 10:55 am

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    Unfortunately, I don’t think that Facebook and social networking have really brought a meaningful kind of change to politics. I just went to Clinton and Obama’s Facebook pages, and it was easy to discover that they both list Casablanca as a favorite movie but difficult to immediately discover anything substantive about either candidate. Additionally, I know people who were in the “One Million Strong for Barack Obama” group who didn’t end up voting in their states’ primaries.

    While I am quite sure that Sean’s point stands true for some (Facebook supplements their political involvement but does not replace it), I think that for others joining a group or becoming an official supporter of a candidate is truly the extent of their political involvement, and I don’t think that this really adds meaningfully to political discourse in America.