It’s Back to the Future for Presidential Campaigns

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Wired posted an interview a few days ago with internet guru Clay Shirky. This part is getting a lot of attention:

Wired: Are you seeing anything interesting in how this election is being conducted or covered online?

Shirky: Clinton used mailing lists in ’92, and every election since then — famously Howard Dean to Barack Obama — has involved considerably more imaginative use of social media. And this election has not. I’ve been quite surprised by that.

I had a student looking at Super PACs a while ago, and we said, “Let’s try and find out what the Super PACs’ social media strategy is.” As she came back about 10 days later, she said, “I think I know what the Super PAC’s social media strategy is: Don’t use it.” That’s exactly the whole point of being a Super PAC, to be able to spend unlimited money on the kind of media where no one has the right or the ability to respond, and to minimize transparency. This election feels to me, right now, more Nixon-Kennedy than Obama-McCain because television has become the tool of choice for the source of unlimited fundraising. Politicians like television better; nobody gets to yell back to you if you’re yelling on TV.

I’m not sure this is right. Super PACs aren’t focusing on social media because, rightly or wrongly, they don’t think that’s their strong suit. A social media campaign is better suited to an organization with a personal flavor or a longer planning horizon, like a presidential campaign or one of the major party national committees. It’s nearly impossible to gin up any kind of viral enthusiasm for a faceless organization like Crossroads GPS.

So the real question isn’t what Super PACs are doing, it’s whether the Romney and Obama campaigns are using social media in any new and imaginative ways. And here, Shirky seems to be right. I can’t remember reading a single piece this year about some creative new use of social media from the campaigns. Maybe that’s because the mainstream media is bored with social media, but I doubt it. If they can get themselves interested in dressage and “the economy is doing fine,” they can get themselves interested in whiz-bang new war room strategies based on whatever new new thing is supposedly putting Facebook out to pasture. But they haven’t. That means either the campaigns are keeping this stuff very, very quiet, or else they aren’t really doing anything new. The former is unlikely, so it’s probably the latter. But why?

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