Can the Next President be Elected by Social Media?

    February 26, 2007

Way back on February 9, 2004, I wrote a famous (well, Doc Searls
linked to it) post called The Internet Does Not Scale/The Internet Is Not Random (scroll down)  on the collapse of Howard Dean’s mostly internet-fueled campaign in the cornfields of Iowa.  It said, in part:


The Internet is a peculiarly self-obsessed, inwardly-looking little world so it’s hardly surprising that the spectacular real world crash of the cyberworld’s first serious presidential campaign should lead to much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.  At this very moment, Web Gods like Doc Searls and Joi Ito and  Dan Gillmour are gathering atop Mt. Berners-Lee (aka the O’Reilly ETech Conference in San Diego), where they are determined to figure out why what we thought we knew
about politics before Iowa has not been confirmed by the facts on the ground.

The simple answer, I suspect, is that those of us who spend an unhealthy amount of time using the Internet are not as numerous, smart, or powerful as we thought we were. The more complicated answer is that the Internet is not an accurate model of the real world because it still lacks the scale and diversity to be a reliable predictor of real life behavior.

So, is that still true or has the web now become big enough and broad enough to accurately reflect or predict national public opinion?  Judging from the latest Pew data, the current profile of web users is still a little too white, educated and prosperous to truly reflect American society as a whole, but the diversity gap has closed a bit over the past four years.  With 70% of total adults now using the internet (up from 63% in 2004), the number of Black users is up 15%  and the figure for Hispanic users is up 10%.  More lower-income people are now using the internet. 

What has changed most dramatically since 2004 is the explosive growth of social media.  Voters in 2008 are far more armed and dangerous, with a full arsenal of blogs, wikis, cell phones, networking sites, podcasts and web-enabled organizational savvy.  Roughly a third of American adults — more than 60 million people — now go online to get political news and discuss electoral campaigns.

Thanks to the web and vast new array of social software, millions of Americans are participating in our politics in ways that didn’t exist just a few years ago. The web may not eclipse TV as the king (or queen) maker in this election cycle but it will give the boob tube a run for its money.  

Note: To track the 2008 presidential campaigns the centrist web site ThinkProgress has just launched a valuable new web site called Presidential Progress: NetTrends08, a comprehensive database of presidential candidates’ activity online.


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