Recently, Pajamas Media writer Andrew Ian Dodge counseled politicians against using social media. He concluded:
One wonders if those so keen on new media will pay attention to those in the know and take care when dealing with this sort of technology. There are those who are monitoring everything that happens on the right online, ready and waiting for this sort of scandal to erupt. And when it does, expect it to become big news. The “old media” absolutely loathes new media. They are very keen to expose “the dangers” of the online world as often as possible. If they can take down a few leading right-wing politicians in the deal as well, so much the better.
This advice is akin to telling politicians during Benjamin Franklin’s time to avoid public speaking (printing press, horrors!), during Alexander Graham Bell’s time to avoid the phone, or during Hoover’s time (note to Joe Biden) to avoid television. New media, whatever it is, avoidance isn’t the key. People who avoid it are bound to be left behind.
Each era has its new form of communication, but the advice to communicators — including politicians — remains the same throughout the ages: speak respectably, look respectable, but most of all, <em>be</em> respectable. While it’s true that Republicans will be watched for impropriety more than Democrats because Democrats are not assumed to have propriety and rarely claim to have it (Nancy Pelosi’s decree of a “new ethical era” notwithstanding), it is also true that ignoring social media or tip-toeing through it will do more damage to Republicans.
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter provide a means to communicate directly to voters bypassing a self-admittedly biased media. If a politician were told there is a way to reach thousands of people with an unadulterated message in a person’s home without the need to knock on a door or stand before TV cameras, he would eagerly ask how to do it. That’s social media.
Social media platforms provide immediate feedback. If a politician were told that he could have dozens, if not hundreds of issues-savvy voters and political junkies share in “round-table” discussions and for free, he’d ask “where do I sign up?”
The fact is, social media is here to stay and an incredibly valuable tool for creating a community around a persona and/or message. Why would a politician, of all people, avoid that? Politicians are in the business of self-branding and selling ideas. They need to stop viewing the internet as the Red Light District of modern media city and realize that Web 2.0 is the way politicians will share messages, raise money, and motivate action in the future.
Exhibit A: Barack Obama. Do Republicans want to be left in the dust for good?
But there are even bigger dangers for Republicans should they decide to avoid social media: their enemies aren’t avoiding it. That is, just because a picture wasn’t loaded on the internet by the politician doesn’t mean that some friend, family member, or anonymous person hasn’t tagged him in a picture on some social network. For example, on Facebook, I’ve made it my personal mission to UN-tag myself from pictures from my past. Not because I have any history to be ashamed of, but because I don’t want old friends or family to be harassed by someone. They don’t need the trouble. It is work to build a reputation in the real world — well, social media is not virtual, it’s real, too. Real pictures, real papers, real quotes, real evidence of a life richly led.
Another danger is that a person’s identity can be co-opted. Just like an identity thief can steal a phone bill and find a way to take over your persona, an online person can use a person’s name and pretend to be him or her. It’s more difficult to co-opt an established online person. A person has a voice and a rhythm to their social interaction that is difficult to steal.
Former Haskell, Oklahoma councilman and social media expert Sid Burgess contends, “Companies who are not learning what they need to know in real time (change opinion, problem solving, etc) are wide open for losing market share to a company who is wiling to do the extra work to stay connected — in real time.” The same can be said for politicians. Any organism needs constant feedback and new information in order to be responsive and grow. Online social networks do that.
Finally, social networks are communities. These are not the family a person is stuck with, they’re the friends a person chooses. The communities are a great way to win friends and influence people. They are a way to belong. They form an informal foundation for idea honing and intellectual interaction.
Social media won’t work if a politician doesn’t truly want to engage. People are extraordinarily sensitive to manipulation. Social media is first and foremost social. That is, if you’re not good with making friends or developing relationships on the terra firma, online relationships may be just as difficult.
Just like newspapers, the telephone, photography, television, movies, C-SPAN, cable, blogs, email, instant messaging, texting, and every other formerly new form of media, social media is here to stay. It’s not a matter of whether or not it should be used, because people are using it. Right now, there is spirited debate among conservatives about the potential RNC chair. This is not idle conversation. The direction the Republican Party takes hinges on this choice. So social media is important. It’s used by a lot of influential people. The question isn’t whether it should be used or even how to avoid harm with social media (a completely negative perspective), but how to most effectively use it.
Republicans need to embrace social media or they risk being left behind. Again.