the Politics of Social Networking

Editor’s Note: the nice folks at MPR asked me for some commentary on the social networking sites of the candidates for senator in Minnesota, you can hear their story here, The part that I am on is a web only feature you can see here or you could just read my bit below-since your here and all.

At one point running for election was a pretty simple concept: you made some speeches, kissed some babies, and that was pretty much it save for the occasional cutting of a ribbon or judging of a pie eating and/or making contest. Then Radio came along and you had to make short, more cohesive speeches and be sober whilst doing it. TV meant that you had to look nice at the same time; that technology also killed the chance of the truly ugly ever achieving public office. Of course in the “all the world is a reality television show, and all the candidates just players in it” world in which we live that means that they need to be in social networking sites too. The last presidential election made it quite clear that if you were a serious candidate you were going to have a page on at-the-time social networking giant Friendster. Of course in 2008 Friendster is as dead as John Kerry‘s political clout. Nowadays you’re talking Myspace and Facebook.

For those of you who have just awoken from a coma, Myspace is the dream of the internet fulfilled- where you can place all your life’s details, embarrassing photos and secrets up and at the same time have strangers gawk at them, while getting “friend requests” from bands that you have never heard of nor would ever outside of their invitation to be friends, and of course spam from scantily clad women who think your profile “looks interesting and they’d like to hook up because they are new to your town”.
On the other hand, Facebook is the place where you put up all your life’s details, embarrassing photos and secrets up and at the same time have strangers gawk at them, while taking bad quizzes about 80’s trivia, and turning down invitations to be a zombie, pirate, vampire, slayer or monkey.

Or to put it more succinctly, Myspace is about your media habits: music you like, books, comedy, tv shows etc. Facebook is more about personal interactions, everyday stuff, and marketing towards consumer choices,(your Netflix queue, your Amazon wishlist, shoes that you like from Zappos.com).

They are sort of the salt and pepper of social networking sites; there are a variety of others but they are ore like the cumin and the dill networking sites: a little too fancy for politics. So we get Facebook and Myspace profiles, which let us see the candidate as a person and not just as the policy spouting bobblehead that they are everywhere else.
They have given us the chance to know them a little bit more personally, which, lets face it, is a bit of a frightening concept.

First up in our social networking rodeo: Norm Coleman.
Norm’s Facebook page shows a lovely picture of him in an un-tucked shirt and sunglasses holding a dead fish up by the gills, smiling the smile that one can only have while holding a dead fish up by the gills. If he had a beer in his other hand it would look more like he was running for president of the Babe Winkelman fan club rather than senator. norm coleman-fishingWe also find his interests listed as: spending quality time with my family(doesn’t his wife live in California?), history, Abraham Lincoln, his faith and spirituality (which he misspelled as spirtuality), Minnesota sports especially the Wild, Brooklyn Dodgers history(ah yes, what Minnesotan doesn’t love the Brooklyn Dodgers. Norm, little hint here- root for the home team, even if you don’t like them. Heck, I am a Twins fan and I don’t like ‘em lately either).

You also have to love that his quote is from Lubavitcher Rebbe who in turn is paraphrasing Maimonides, and that his favorite movie is The Rock, and he is a fan of Five for Fighting-truly a riddle wrapped in an enigma, with a side of Nicolas Cage. As of this writing he had 1,453 supporters on Facebook, while on Myspace just a mere 104 friends. Oh and in case you were curious he misspelled “spirituality” on his Myspace page as well.

Of course, lame profile aside the Coleman folks do know how to game the system in terms of advertising: on Norm’s Myspace site is what looks like a banner ad for Franken but in fact is a Coleman campaign ad with a medley of fragmented out-of-context quotes from Franken that disagree with each other, an oldie but a goody. The Coleman campaign goes a step further by running ads on Franken’s Myspace site as well; here we find an ad for a Republicans in senatorial races website, an ad directly for Coleman, and an additional two ads for companies that do email spam.

Mike Ciresi opted for just the Facebook profile; I guess he knows he’s the long shot so why have two profiles. His picture looks like a snapshot in somebody’s backyard, where we see the back of an anonymous person’s head and a wind turbine. Sure, it could be a clever statement about his support of alternative energy, or he just couldn’t find a better picture.Mike Ciresi Not a lot of information here other than his employer and position; with 188 friends, he’s a third in the Facebook race and his position as “future senator” is about as likely as Rudy Giuliani is to be President.

Jim CohenJim Cohen, who I had never heard of till I wrote this, has by far the most professional looking Facebook site. It’s a professional photo that makes him look sensitive but sincere. Of course it also makes him look like someone from the IT department, but this is Facebook after all. His “about me” is lacking to say the least; we get a title “Jim Cohen On The Issues: The Vision of A Pragmatic Progressive” and a 56 word statement, the first five words of which are a reworking of the title. There was more but it just stated he was optimistic and progressive, oh and that he wanted to be senator. Oh, and he lists his activities as swimming: with Facebook supporters at 59, treading water might be his actual activities. Heck I have 150 friends on Facebook and I am not running for anything.

Mr& Mrs Al FrankenYou have to love that we live in a state where we have more than one politician that you can play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with, which of course brings us to Al Franken. His Facebook photo is a tasteful picture of him and the wife and his interests listed as: Representing MN, biking, establishing universal healthcare, hanging out with friends, renewable energy, the Twins. He had the common sense to name check the home town team, and you know that whole think about representingFlavor Flav MN: Yeah boy Represent…sorry, I was channeling Flavor Flav there for a second.

Franken states on the page that he has other people manning it, while all the other candidates have the illusion going that the candidate checks his own email. My only complaint with his Facebook profile is that he lists only one band in the music section: the Grateful Dead. Seriously, the Dead? You’re a politician; shouldn’t there at least be some pretense that you didn’t smoke pot in college? At least on Myspace he name checks Paul Simon and REM, but hey its Minnesota, where are Prince and the Replacements? Even Kid Johnny Lang would work. At 2,572 supporters in Facebook and 930 in the Myspace camp its safe to say he is leading the social networking vote.

Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer’s Facebook site greets us with a picture of him and his whole family: 4 women.Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer
Here we also find that his interests are running for US Senate and that he is a fan of the Dixie Chicks and that his favorite books are his own, and then he refers you to his Wikipedia page (which he doesn’t link to anywhere). Other than his own books he likes the Grapes of Wrath and mysteries. For a guy who has written 11 books he really doesn’t say a lot, and other than listing his political views as liberal you really find out nothing about him as a candidate. Clocking in at 160 supporters, he is not in the lowest numbers, but he is far from in the running.

Last up is Michael Cavlan, who comes in with a lone Myspace page, a solitary picture that says less “senatorial candidate” and more “drivers’Michael Cavlan license”. The information here is very minimal, which is the polite way of saying it’s blank. Nothing, save for friends–of which he has 227 and of those a little less then half seem to be local bands that “friend” anything to boost their numbers–and two blog entries: one from June 14, 2006, and the other from September 24, 2006. so yeah… um… you might want to update that. Just a thought.

The thing about all these profiles is that they really don’t tell you anything about the candidates, at least not overtly; nothing declarative where they say what they believe in or why they believe in it. They give us little bits of fluff about their hobbies and what they listen to, so you can visualize Norm Coleman as a guy who liked Gladiator rather then a guy who wants to… well, wants to do what, I can’t rightly say since they don’t tell us, not here at least.

Every candidate’s profile urges the reader to get involved but never explains how or why, and that’s the real problem here. It’s less about issues and beliefs than about whom you can imagine yourself having a beer and a plate of nachos with. That might not be the best criteria on which to elect somebody. It seems that with social networking the candidates hope to get the youth vote out and get in touch with the kids, but if you’re not really saying anything can you really expect them to listen?

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