Whistlestop

A friend and I were chatting about the possibility of Bush having a blog. Next day she sent me this article from AustralianIT that says that the US presidential candidates now have MySpace pages and blogs.

Visitors to the website are provided easy ways to copy candidates’ virtual election banners or badges to personal MySpace pages and to become part of online fundraising networks for campaigns.

“As the country’s most trafficked website, MySpace will play a powerful role in the upcoming election,” MySpace chief executive Chris DeWolfe said.

“Our digital candidate banners will be the yard signs of the 21st Century and our political viral videos and vlogs (video logs) are the campaign ads of the future.”

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Social networking software like MySpace has thrived on ordinary people using the Internet to connect with each other in new ways. However, the candidate’s pages immediately remind me of McLuhan’s observation that, at first, the content of new medium is older media. Gutenberg grabbed No 1 from the monastic most copied list for his first publication. Similarly, I remember watching endless 30s westerns on channel 13 in New York in the late 40s. As I read the candidates MySpace pages I see ‘blog’ entries that are actually press releases. And YouTube videos that are just regular TV clips. Initially at least what we have is social media being turned back into mass media. Social media is personal and interactive, mass media is impersonal and the audience is passive. The structure of presidential campaigns is a big part of the problem – a few candidates, many many voters.

But lets remember something here. Mass media have not always been the main factor in our presidential campaigns. Before TV, in fact, a lot of campaigning was still done the old fashioned way – person to person. The last such campaign was in 1948 when a president in deep trouble took to his railroad car and went on the last whistlestop campaign. Whistlestop. Think about it. That means he went and spoke at as many really little towns as he could fit in. Even those too small to be regular stopping places on the railroad. Given the technology of the time Truman went as directly to the people as he could. He defeated a heavily favored Thomas E. Dewey who swanned around on his ‘Victory Special’ cherry picking the big audiences. Truman, I notice in passing, milked a still intact 19th century network for all it was worth.

McLuhan said that we rush into the future with our eyes firmly fixed in the rear view mirror. What he also said by example, if not directly, is that if we look further into the past we may find patterns that apply better to the future than the immediate past. So I think there is a real opportunity here for presidential candidates to make campaigning more personal again. What? Waste time interacting with individuals on the net when the candidate could be speaking to thousands or millions via TV? Well, yes – because the personal contact will go a lot further to lock in votes than TV time. It doesn’t have to be done in an inefficient way, but the candidate would have to read enough voter e-mails to give authentic personal reactions. Then his workers could send the e-mails – similar comments to similar statements of support. Bright volunteers can do that sort of thing and a good candidate could monitor the process enough every day to keep it fresh and personal. I think it might be time well spent.

To be fair, the first part of the interactive process is already happening on MySpace. One of the built in features of MySpace is that you can sign up to be someone’s friend. Just what any candidate looking to use Social Media should want – friends and lots of them. But I think the key to success will be in the candidate’s response. At least one candidate already has a big problem and big opportunity. Barack Obama has 50,000 friends. Hilary about half that and my personal favorite – Giuliani – a tenth of Barak’s total. Barack needs people to read those 50,000 personal messages and work out the best way to respond to them in a way that feels as personal as possible to his new friends. I don’t think people will expect Barack or any other candidate to personally sit down and think up a response. But he could spend some time each day having his people read him a selection of the messages and give his genuine spoken response. That response could than be used to answer many individuals personally. Admitting to the public how it works – transparency from the git go – feels like a really good idea to me. The net is just too good at catching out fakery of any kind, so candidates would be well advised to let their public know how they choose to handle social media.

The importance of transparency comes from EXELER8tion.com, a blog run by my son and daughter in law focusing on social media and its impact on business, particularly job recruitment. They have a very relevant quote up from Andy Warhol at the top of their blog today: “They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” That means you too Rudy!

To finish where I started with the idea of President Bush blogging. When radio was about as new as the Net is today, FDR successfully used the ‘fireside chat’ to communicate with the American people during WWII. He managed to make what is now termed the President’s weekly radio address into something that had a personal touch even though it was a mass media event. Radio was the leading broadcast mass medium at that time, but TV has turned out differently in that no President can use TV every week. But the President could blog. And not just press releases – it has to be personal enough so that readers know that to a certain extent they are reading what the president has to say. All he has to do is orally convey to his writers what he personally wishes he could get directly across to the American people that day. It could be written up for his approval and vetted by all the minders from the lawyers to the CIA. The point is that it could open up a new channel to the public. The press could ignore it, but at their peril. The President’s thoughts would only be a click away. Of course, given the feelings this president evokes I think comments would have to be moderated. Which is to say, the idea is fraught with problems. On the other hand a president in the last two years of his second term doesn’t have to worry about his political future. Or how many friends he has. He can just go ahead and make history.


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