Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Vote: Lessons from the election

(Barack Obama by Tiner)

This is a long post that highlights how social media and charisma influenced this year's election. If. If you want skip it, vote, and enjoy a free coffee, go ahead.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy Jr., thirty-fifth President of the United States, eloquently remarked “…in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.” Hope is a metaphoric building block that can motivate individuals of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds to construct tangible bridges of lasting change. Hope inspires people to set aside personal differences and implement policies that benefit mankind. More than forty-year years after JFK Jr.’s remark, hope continues to be a major political topic as Barack Obama, a United States Senator from Illinois and presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, leverages the theme’s fundamental strength to unite Americans throughout the 2008 United States presidential election. From charismatically discussing change in campaign speeches to highlighting reform across social media websites, hope is solidifying Obama’s rise as an influential twenty-first century icon.

Prior to social media, the Graphic Revolution or the popularity of print publications accelerated a fundamental change in the perception of celebrities. According to Daniel Boorstin, an American historian and University of Chicago professor, the Graphic Revolution gave rise to “pseudo-events” or staged events created to attract publicity. “Pseudo-events,” including televised political debates and press conferences, were created to enhance a celebrity’s perception and increase coverage of a celebrity’s life. As society’s dependence on “servants or television, movies, and radio” increased, “pseudo-events” accelerated a popularity shift from the traditional hero to the creation of the modern celebrity. In particular, interest in the personal lives of public figures or modern celebrities outweighed interest in the accomplishments of the traditional hero.

"Hyperreality" of Social Media
More than fifty years after Boortin’s analysis, social media increasingly accelerate interest in “pseudo-events” and reinforce the “hyperreality” of postmodernity. According to Jean Baudrillard, a postmodern sociologist and philosopher, “what was once ‘real’ in the realm of human interaction has been replaced by a ‘hyperreality,’ in which societal relationships are no longer played out in an actual sense, but are merely ‘simulated.”

Social media tools, including blogs, social networking profiles, video streaming websites, and microblogs create “simulated relationships,” as corporate and personal brands become “friends” with the general public. Popular social websites including Twitter, FaceBook, MySpace, and YouTube increase this “simulated relationship,” because they allow individuals and brands to constantly interact with direct messages, posts, and comments. As brands continually intermingle with target audiences through “simulated relationships,” the definition of a friendship is redefined. As long as a brand, company, or political candidate can send a personal message with a social media tool, he or she is considered a “friend.” In particular, the more “simulated relationships” or electronic friendships a candidate can establish with registered voters, the more he or she creates awareness for their campaign and improves their chance of winning political office.

Accelerate a Tipping Point
Social media tools allow political candidates to constantly connect to and interact with the general public. The emerging media’s pervasive 24/7 connection creates a quicker “tipping point” or mainstream demand in a brand, product, service, or even political candidate. Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best seller The Tipping Point, identifies “tipping points” as “levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable.” Due to the public’s constant access to social media websites, political candidates can create a quicker “tipping point” or popular interest in their candidacy. Social media tools accelerate a “tipping point” beyond earlier adapters to the mainstream, because marketing materials can easily be shared at the click of a mouse.

First Mover Advantage
In 2006, John Edwards, a U.S. Senator from North Carolina, became the first presidential candidate to use the Internet as a medium to announce his candidacy for President of the United States (Vella). Edwards posted a video on YouTube and the video’s viewers created a “tipping point” for his political bid. Viewers were able to watch Edwards’ film and instantly share it with friends via email or sharing the link on a social network. From features on national television shows to discussions in Internet forums, Edwards’ strategic use of YouTube created early awareness for his campaign and enhanced his political brand. Although he ultimately resigned from the 2008 Presidential election, Edwards’ use of social media illustrates how any political candidate can create a “tipping point” and engage voters in a campaign through “simulated relationships.”

Obama's Network
Expanding upon Edwards’ integration of social media into a political campaign, Barack Obama uses various social networking tools to increase awareness for his political brand. From having 2.6 million friends on FaceBook to over 800,000 friends on MySpace to over 100,000 followers on Twitter, Obama is successfully leveraging social media to engage voters in the 2008 election. In fact, Obama has collected more than $200 million USD online through his social network of “simulated relationships” (Holahan). Obama’s social media network is a valuable entity, because it constantly exposes his political brand to registered voters.

According to Zanjoc’s Mere Exposure Theory, the more a person is exposed to something, the more that item becomes likeable, assuming the viewer has a neutral first impression. Unlike traditional print or televisions advertisements that are typically viewed once, social networking profiles are often viewed multiple times as viewers check for profile updates. The natural exposure gradually increases a political candidate’s familiarity and likeability. Sending direct links and personal messages to his electronic friendships, Obama can leverage his large social network to increase exposure and direct substantial traffic to barackobama.com, his official campaign website (see diagram below).

According to Compete.com’s illustration, barackobama.com averages over two million more unique visitors than johnmccain.com, the official campaign website of John McCain, an Arizona Senator and presidential nominee of the Republican Party. The substantial difference in website traffic can be attributed to Obama’s social network that is nearly seven times larger than McCain’s network (Holahan). Although the traffic does not lead to direct votes, the difference increases awareness for Obama and his chance at receiving more campaign volunteers. Additionally, to increase his social marketing edge over McCain, Obama purchased “in-game” advertisements in BurnOut Paradise, a XBOX 360 video game, and launched Obama’08, an iPhone application (Ingram). From a feature on CNN to coverage by countless bloggers, Obama's innovative and unprecedented form of political advertising generated a large return on investment. Media outlets were encouraged to write about its originality, which increased Obama’s awareness and “simulated relationship” with registered voters.

Users of Social Media
Although social media is a valuable entity to engage target audiences in a political brand, mainstream appeal is still limited to certain demographics. According to a 2008 Synovate survey that analyzed 17 markets and polled 13,000 people, 58% respondents did not recognize the term social media (Caverly). This study polled ages ranging from 18-65, the latter who struggled to recognize popular social networking terms. The regular users of social media are extremely vocal about the advantages of the media, which creates the allure that more then 58% of users are engaged in the media. Additionally, a 2006 comScore study reveals that social media’s popularity is divided between 18-24 year-olds and 35-54 year-olds (see chart below).

Although the mainstream users of social media are divided between two distinct demographics, Obama strategically bridged the demographic gap with his charismatic personality. According to Marks & Fischer, the celebrity’s role is to function as an energetic microphone to call admirers to follow a cause. Similar to the “halo effect,” a candidate’s passion and ability to leverage admirable qualities allows their supporters to follow their magnetism.

Obama’s charismatic qualities and promise of change passionately capture voter’s attention and created interest across all demographics. According to Joseph Nye, author of The Powers to Lead and a Harvard University Professor, “followers are more likely to attribute charisma to leaders when they feel a strong need for change, often in the context of a personal, organizational or social crisis.” From the Dow Jones taking its worst plunge in 21 years during October 2008 to unemployment reaching a 5-year high to large U.S. based corporations, including AIG, requiring financial bailouts from the American government, Obama’s charismatic promise of hope and change is a timely message to America’s current financial woes. Unlike John McCain whose Republican party is heavily blamed for implementing bureaucratic policies that contributed to America’s current financial meltdown, Obama can passionately inspire registered voters by promising change to the economic crisis.

As America’s economic climate remains unstable days before the 2008 presidential election, the nerves of worried registered voters are partially alleviated by Obama’s charismatic personality, which has become a vital entity of his political brand. In The Power Elite, Wright Mills systematically defines characteristics of influential leaders. Drawing upon his research as a Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, Mills highlights how powerful leaders are established, shaped and influenced by the mass media. Mills states

“like wealth and power, prestige tends to be cumulative: the more of it you have, the more you can get. These values also tend to be translatable into one another, wealthy find it easier than the poor to gain power; those with status find it easier than those without it to control opportunities for wealth” (10).

In particular, Mills attributes energy and character as vital leadership qualities to accelerate “means of power –as those who occupy command posts” (23). Similar to Marks & Fisher highlighting the importance of a leader’s charisma in The Kings New Bodies, Mills’ argument establishes the framework for the Obama’s development as a political icon. From rallying thousands of supporters in Berlin to ardent appearances on nighttime talk shows, including Oprah, Obama continually exhibits magnetism to garner support. Like the “wealthy find(ing) it easier than the poor to gain power,” Obama continually exhibits charisma to alleviate political worries and promise change.

Charisma Inspiring Participation
In the participatory culture of social media, registered voters continually highlight Obama’s charisma from different perspectives. From Amber Ettinger dancing around in “I’ve Got A Crush on Obama” to A-List celebrities appearing in Will.i.am’s “Yes We Can,” Obama’s supporters continually cut-and-past various aspects from Obama’s speeches to depict his charisma in user-generated YouTube movies. Although “I’ve Got A Crush on Obama” and “Yes We Can” each received over ten million views on YouTube, the films solely reflect the need for change, hope in a new administration, but do not outline specific policy measures. According to Joe Klein, a syndicated Times columnist, “rather than focusing on any specific issue or cause — other than an amorphous desire for change — the message is becoming dangerously self-referential. The Obama campaign all too often is about how wonderful the Obama campaign is.” As Obama’s “simulated relationships” exponentially increased across various social media websites, opponents argued that Obama’s fame became the focus of his campaign ticket.

Additionally, three months before voters officially cast their ballots, movies started circulating on social media websites that critiqued Obama’s celebrity image. In “Celeb,” a YouTube movie comparing Obama’s celebrity icon to the image of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, John McCain questions Obama’s ability to lead and critiques his campaign policies. Although “Celeb” received two million views on YouTube, the movie ultimately backfired against McCain. To defend her personality, Paris Hilton created her own social media movies that humorously criticized McCain’s age and question his physical condition to lead. In “Paris Responds to McCain Ad,” Hilton amusingly critiques McCain and presents a solution to alleviate America’s energy issues. Following the film’s viral success of over eight million views, Hilton created several spin-offs that portray her running for political office. Similar to voters captivated by Obama’s charisma, viewers are allured to Hilton’s energetic nature. With the social media series, Hilton created her own “pseudo-event,” which illustrates how the general public is continually captivated by the magnetism of public figures.

As Barack Obama’s deliverance of hope and promise change became a central theme to his presidential campaign, opponents continued to critique his political brand. In particular, critics changed the one word message on Shepard Fairey’s famous illustration of Obama from hope to hype (see illustrations below).

The simple change of one word illustrates how opinions can vastly differ in a conflicted media event, especially during a political election. According to Simone Cottle, director of the Media and Communications Program at the University of Melbourne, conflicted media events have “become a victim of its own success, suffering conceptual inflation and loss of analytical bite when applied too widely and too indiscriminately to different types of exceptional media phenomena” (420). As campaign images and political commercials are continually shared in a “hyperreal” fashion through social media’s “simulated relationships,” the impact of a “media phenomena” diminishes. Although the spin off to Fairey’s poster and other negative Obama images, including a political poster depicting the candidate as a former socialist leader, are created to hurt Obama’s political brand; the negative images do not have a lasting, negative effect. Similar to McCain’s “Celeb” YouTube commercial pessimistically critiquing Obama, the negative print posters compete against the vast dispersion of “different types of exceptional media.” The creators of the negative Obama advertisements lack the social media infrastructure to compete against Obama’s “hyperreal” network that is seven times larger than McCain’s network. Obama can instantly disprove negative advertisements and create new content to refute defamatory claims.

Charisma and The Deliverance of Hope
As America movies closer to the results of the presidential election, it may ultimately be the charismatic leadership and allure of an outside political candidate that defined the 2008 election. According to Rakesh Khurana, author of The Corporate Savior, “internal candidates …are considered blemished while external candidates are easily idealized” (61). From a perspective of the 2008 Presidential election, an external candidate, like Obama, displays a “charismatic orientation” that increases a nation’s orientation to “optimism, confidence, and a can-do attitude” (71). From Barack Obama displaying energetic qualities throughout his campaign speeches to his charisma being broadcasted across his social media network, Obama’s dynamic passion distinguished himself from McCain and inspired a can-do attitude in America. No matter the outcome of the election, Obama’s “simulated relationship” to his voters and charisma timely inspired a hope that “can be translated into a benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.”

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