Rodrigo Davies

Thoughts on Neighborly, civic crowdfunding and the future of community development

How social media shaped the US election

05 Dec 2012

"Some of my best friends are binders full of women."

While the candidates' social media teams spent many hours rebutting factual inaccuracies and publishing lightning-fast infographics, the discourse around this year's election (online, at least) was dominated by social media memes. Critics will be quick to dismiss this as the debasing of political debate by cynical, uninformed observers, or straightforward dumbing down. But it's no accident that Big Bird and Binders Full of Women stole our attention, because the meme form is highly adapted to the social media news feed environment in which most of us consume news online. I've been researching the dynamics of feed culture recently and would like to suggest that we describe that environment as 'hyperoral', in which the ephemerality, brevity and repetition common to oral discourse is given a hypermediated form.

I've written more about the topic in an article for the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society's Digital Natives project (cross-posted below, PDF here), but before that, I gave a brief interview to Sky News about the role of social media in the campaign, in which I summed up some of these ideas. MEMEOCRACY: What can politics learn from spreadable internet culture?

This year's US presidential election saw the amount the two main candidates spent on digital advertising and campaigning more than double from 2008, to almost $52 million. The gap between the Democrats' spending over the Republicans also increased more than two-fold, with Obama outspending Romney by ten to one - most of it being invested in online advertisements, web-based fundraising and social media teams.

On the face of it, it's a big victory for digital campaigners. They've fought hard to convince veteran campaign managers that their teams are worth investing in, and done so in much the same way as online teams in the publishing business have: by focusing their attention on bringing in revenue. That's why this year users who registered to support one of the campaigns found themselves being asked for fundraising donations many times a week, and almost always before they were asked to donate their time or write a message of support.

But as the money began to speak this year, especially for Obama, a harder question was asked: can digital campaigns influence the direction and tone of the debate that is happening online, especially via spreadable social media?

It's a question that unnerves even the most seasoned campaign hacks because of the so-called 'second screen' phenomenon - the idea that when an individual is watching television they will also be glancing at either their laptop or their mobile phone, commenting on what's happening on-screen, and being influenced by other social media users. That means unruly social networks are now intruding on the carefully controlled, stage-managed broadcast environment on which every campaign for the past half-century has focused.

So can digital campaign teams deploy the same skills that gave us carefully manicured websites and social media profiles to fight guerrilla-style, in real time, and shape the public's reaction to events? The answer in 2012 was a resounding 'no'.

Both campaigns tried to do so via Twitter, rolling out rapid response accounts to dispute claims made by the other side (Obama's team used @OFAdebates and @TruthTeam2012, while Romney's team used @RomneyResponse). These skirmishes were concentrated around the presidential debates, reflecting the perceived importance of that media real estate.<

The problem was, that for every string of 140 characters each side could rattle out - usually between thirty and eighty each per debate - the internet's attention was wandering elsewhere, and taking most of the media's attention with it. For every pithy statistic or carefully rendered visualisation about healthcare, there were thousands of posts on Big Bird or Binders Full of Women.

For anyone who hasn't paid much attention to social media, the explosion of interest in these memes might have been either confusing (why are the electorate more interested in an looping animations of facial expressions and found images?) or downright irritating (why has the debate been moved from discussions of fact to riffs on a repetitive theme?). But we shouldn't be surprised at the content or the manner of the internet public's reaction.

One way to explain this phenomenon is to think about how social (or spreadable) media differs from traditional written forms like newspapers and broadcast forms like television. Despite having a strong text component, social media in many ways has more in common with verbal communication than it does with text forms. I would argue that it's a hyper-oral world, and depends on three things: ephemerality, brevity and repetition.

As with heard conversation, posts appear and disappear rapidly in a user's stream. This ephemerality is irresistible - so there's little to be gained by trying to fight it. No one would try to make an audio or written recording of every conversation they ever had. As a result, for a message to be heard and understood, it needs to be delivered concisely. Twitter skeptics are quick to point to the platform's 140 character limit as a sign of stunted discourse (Facebook posts are truncated at 320 characters), but it's at the very least on a par with a newspaper headline or a television slogan, if not more generous. Verbal conversations are rarely lists of facts or colourless observations; they are much more likely to be personal, opinionated reactions to a topic.

The ability to respond, and to engage in conversation is, of course, the most feted aspect of social media, and it's this that makes repetition a critical part of an influential message. In an ephemeral world of brief messages, a piece of content needs to be echoed many times in order to be memorable: it goes without saying that unless a message gets many re-tweets or Shares (and within a short window of time after the original post), it won't gain traction. But what's even more compelling about a meme like Binders Full of Women is that it gives the user the ability to re-tell the story in their own words.

For instance, in a verbal conversation, a perfectly quoted story may be an engaging performance for the listener. However, it's unlikely to be as engaging as if the story has been fully internalised by the teller, re-shaped to reflect his or her immediate environment and delivered in their own words, with subtle nuances that reflect the place, time and people to whom they're speaking. This kind of repetition of a message also invites the audience to think about how the message applies to them, and to create their own retelling.

So what does this mean for political campaigns, and digital activists more broadly? Firstly, in trying to foment change online, changemakers need to embrace the ephemerality and brevity of the format. Concise messages are something that most effective campaign groups do extremely well already. Factual battles may be an important defensive tactic at times, but they are unlikely to inspire people to join a cause. Movement leaders also need to relax their ideas around authorship and empower movement participants to create their own re-tellings of the message. This means thinking beyond one-dimensional control of the message that the public is hearing.

To be sure, the economy of spreadable, concise ideas that social media thrives on is not a new mode of human experience, and digital campaigners would do well to learn from the great banners and protest songs of the past. In a hyper-oral age, there might even be more to learn from these forms of expression than from the mass broadcast era that is coming to an end. Regardless of the platform that political change occurs on - whether the revolution is televised or tweeted - it needs to be shared.