Barack Obama has more than 106,000 friends. John McCain has managed to rack up almost 40,000.
Social networking, of course, is nothing new. But as MySpace becomes a bold (or bizarre) new element in presidential campaigns, the 17 Republican and Democratic hopefuls are trying to figure out how to make it work online.
“Social networking has been the groundwork of every campaign since the beginning of politics,” said Will Carlin of VShift, an interactive-marketing agency that caters to both corporate and political clients. But in the dark ages before e-mail, MySpace and Facebook, a candidate’s social network was likely to consist of campaign workers and devoted supporters making phone calls, designing political ads and using old-school word-of-mouth to rally support.
The drastic differences today are the speed at which a candidate’s Internet-enabled social network can grow, and the intensified focus on the so-called “youth vote.” Thus, it’s no surprise that candidates are reaching out to experienced MySpace users to set up their MySpace pages. Spoiler alert! That wasn’t actually Hillary Clinton answering your friend request.
“I spend about an hour a day on the MySpace page,” said 25-year-old Stephen Smith, who runs Mitt Romney’s MySpace page. He also works on the campaign’s Web site, monitors conservative blogs and updates the former Massachusetts governors Facebook page and YouTube channel — and yes, he gets paid for it. Some other candidates’ pages were started by volunteers (see “Anthony Speaks On Obama MySpace Takeover: ‘They Took This Profile Without My Consent’ “ ).
“The MySpace page is a great place for the governor’s supporters to come together, to talk about the campaign, to interact with one each other and learn more about the governor and his message in a more informal setting,” he said.
Knowing that Mitt Romney likes Toby Keith and “Huckleberry Finn” is fun and all, but will it help win him the Republican nomination? Will listening to any candidate’s iPod playist help them set their profile song to “Hail to the Chief”?
“Nobody has yet unlocked the secret of social networking — yet,” said Carlin. “Because the reality is, letting people beneath the surface of who you are is risky. Most candidates are risk-averse. That’s not a bad thing to be, but somebody who almost doesn’t care and does something almost as a lark has nothing to lose. That’s who is going to make a big splash.”
Right now, the riskiest things happening on candidates’ MySpace pages happen in the comments sections. A recent look found a picture of an illegal substance on Chris Dodd’s page and a comment blaming illegal immigrants for casting “millions of illegal votes for Democrats” on Mitt Romney’s profile.
“We are trying to keep the debate as lively as possible on the MySpace page,” Smith said about the comments.
MySpace co-founder Tom Anderson thinks the candidates have a done a pretty good job harnessing the power of his brainchild. “I think they are really forward-thinking,” he said. But it isn’t what candidates are doing on their pages, or the Town Halls and “Virtual Primary” he has planned that are the most powerful card MySpace will play in the election. “It isn’t as important as getting people excited about it and showing on your profile what you believe in and who you are standing up for,” he said. (See ” MySpace Tom Hopes U.S. Prez Hopefuls Have Deep ‘Impact’ On Site” ).
For some, standing up involves a dressing-down: There is quite a bit of inter-candidate mudslinging in the comment columns. It’s nothing new in the high-school-clique atmosphere of MySpace, but does that mean social-networking sites will be the new place for dirty politics? Will John Edwards be posting nasty blogs about how Hillary didn’t invite him to her party last weekend?
“People who are rabid followers of a certain candidate may get overly rabid and do something,” Carlin said, “but I doubt that it would be a covert operation by the campaign. If a campaign did it, then [it would] be absolutely hammered for being that mean and probably lose as a result.”
And nobody wants to be remembered as the cyberbully of the 2008 elections …