Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Whatever happened to the 'Social Media Election'?

In the wake of Barack Obama's use of social networks in the Democratic Primary and US Presidential Elections, everyone was expecting the current UK General Election to reflect the growth of social media. We now find ourselves over halfway through the official campaign and such a shift is yet to happen.

On the contrary, at present 'old media' seems to be winning out over new. The television debates have, to date, had a bigger impact on the campaign than almost anything that many generations can remember. Social media use by the major parties has been limited, with many of the major figures spurning the opportunity to connect directly with voters through the medium.

Last night I went to a talk by Justin Webb, the former BBC North American editor and presenter for Today on BBC Radio 4. Justin was comparing the UK and US election processes and provided some interesting insights on both similarities and key differences.

I took the opportunity to ask for Justin's view on the role of social media. He is clearly not a big advocate, often berating his co-presenter at the BBC, Evan Davies for using Twitter. His feelings were that it will be some time before social media makes its presence felt in a positive way in the British electoral system.

"The key impact Obama's use of social media had on the US elections was as a news story", he told me. "The media all said, 'look, Obama's using social media', and that provided him with more coverage.

"The other interesting influence of social media was how it benefited Obama's fundraising efforts. It allowed him to attract millions of small donations from ordinary people. I think the Liberal Democrats may already be benefiting from this here. Perhaps social media could have a big impact on political fundraising in this country."

At present though, Webb believes that social media's role in electoral politics is limited. "We need a generation to get old with social media for it to have a major impact in general elections", he said.

Don't underestimate the power of a politician's gaffe during the closing days of the election to have a much bigger impact than ever before, thanks to social media . With camera phones and Flip cameras at the ready, any slip up can be both shared globally and repeated ad nauseam irrespective of how many people witness it in person. The news media pick the stories up and run with them as people share them on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube.

This may not be the 'Social Media Election' many people expected, but new media can still have a role to play.


  1. I sometimes wonder whether there's such thing as a 'social media' bubble - that may one day burst. What do you think?

  2. I know a lot of people are waiting for the bubble to burst Doug, but I'm not sure it will.

    Many people now have a lot invested in social media, in terms of relationships, contacts and intellectual property. All of this both professional and personal.

    While many will try it out and turn away, others will persevere. And most notable, I think the Millenial Generation and beyond see social media as the norm and won't think of a life without.

    As that generation grows up we will see social media become stronger, not weaker.

  3. For most of our lifetimes, technology kept us apart and created an efficient, but sterile, world for us to live in. But recently, hardware and software advances have allowed us to start using technology to connect with each other. That might be an overstated way of saying that social media is not another tech fad. Sure, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc may be fads, and could come and go in the next few years. But the concept of using technology to help us do what we are driven to do as humans is not going to go away. We want to connect, to engage, to contribute, to interact. And social media allows us to do that.

    So, no, Doug, I don't think it's a bubble. And I don't think it's going to burst.

    I do think the hype will blow over. But this is more than a fad - it is a deep trend that's here to stay.