As 2011 comes to a close, the Internet and social media are playing an increasingly big role in Politics. Google has been trying to attract politicians to Plus, with mixed success. That’s changed rapidly over the last month. Google’s published a guide to Google+ for politicians to help them on their way. With the addition of the president’s campaign this morning, I think it’s likely that today will be a tipping point for Google Plus adoption in the political space.
The president’s campaign will be able to do more than ask questions on Twitter or post a picture of Bo on Facebook with Plus, however: he’s be able to host a Hangout with and then broadcast it live through Google’s platform using improved features that rolled out this fall. In the future, that might include mobile hangouts with the president through Android devices.
Of course, that’s already true for all of the leading Republican contenders to be next president of the United States. All of campaigns of the candidates currently leading in the polls to be the Republican nominee for president are on Google+, including +Mitt Romney, +Herman Cain, +Newt Gingrich +Ron Paul. Romney participated in the first of a series of Hangouts with candidates from the GOP primary. Bachmann, Santorum, We can expect more of them this winter.
Politicians, by nature, are drawn to crowds — particularly registered voters from their home districts. For Plus to be worth the additional time of elected officials or their staff, they’ll need to get substantial returns on that investment. If the presidential campaigns are there, it will show what’s possible to others and draw politically engaged citizens in.
The prospects for that outcome are looking better recently: Google Plus traffic surged after the addition of brands and media companies this fall. If people see it as an attractive destination to interact with candidates and their campaigns, that’s likely to continue. To date, aside from notable exceptions like +Bernie Sanders, congressmen, mayors, governors and other elected officials have not yet joined in bulk. We’ll see if that changes after the Thanksgiving holiday.
When is the first presidential Hangout?
Chris Taylor (“Barack Obama joins Google+“) writes that “at least one prominent user was making active use of the site Wednesday: President Barack Obama.” Ulanoff at The Next Web? “it’s definitely the President himself.”
Well, not so much. It’s campaign staffers, not the leader of the free world, just as it is on @BarackObama on Twitter or the Obama 2012 Facebook page. The only tweet the president has composed and sent went out from the @WhiteHouse account (more on that later).
Taylor makes it clear that he knows that Obama is not using the account himself — “it isn’t being run by the President himself, but by his reelection campaign” — but the imprecision here doesn’t help matters for readers. That’s doubly so when Google executive +Vic Gundotra writes “Welcome Mr. President! Follow the President at +Barack Obama” in introducing the new page.
As is often the case, Nick Judd has some of the smartest analysis of the intersection of campaigns and politics, over at techPresident. In his post on team Obama joining Google+, he gets to the heart of the issue: whether candidates or sitting elected officials use a given social platform to its fullest capacity to engage constituents and built community, as opposed to yet another (virtual) podium to deliver messages and speeches. So far, the Obama campaign isn’t going there.
Campaigns are using these channels primarily as another outlet for information to reach a different audience — if any candidate has used a brand page to actually go back and forth with constituents, beyond hangouts by Gingrich and Romney, it hasn’t appeared on the techPresident radar. But that isn’t stopping the hopey-changey crowd from asking: One of the most prevalent comments on Obama 2012’s first post, from around 9:17 a.m., is a request for a Google Hangout with the commander-in-chief.
There’s nothing wrong with reaching new audiences, of course — particularly for those trying to get elected — but how political accounts use social media will factor into whether they’re successful reaching and engaging them, much less influencing them. Each platform has developed its own culture and styles, from the reblogs and retweets of Tumblr and Twitter to the “Ask Me Anything” forum — or AMAs – on Reddit. (For an interesting thought experiment, imagine if the president did an AMA like former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.)
As Carl Franzen points out at TPM IdeaLab, as Google+ gets political it’s encouraging politicians to create pages, not profiles. Future analysis of the social network’s political prospects might dwell upon that initial choice. Facebook, by way of contrast, has been transitioning many fans of pages to subscribers of profiles. Senator Sanders has a profile, although the use of the third person makes it clear that its’ staffers that are updating his page.
Danny Sullivan makes another important point at SearchEngineLand: while Barack Obama joins Google, White House is still not there. (It may be a while yet, depending upon how quickly the respective legal teams at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway can work out an agreement. They did it for YouTube eventually, so stay tuned.)
There’s a larger point to make about how, where and why our elected leaders choose to use social media. Radio and television dramatically changed how political leaders could communicate with citizens domestically and humanity globally during the 20th century, both for good and ill. In the 21st century, that capacity has further expanded and will continue to do so, in ways both expected and unexpected. Politicians can speak to the electorate whenever and where ever they are, if they choose to subscribe emails or follow profiles. Citizens can, in return, speak back using new connection technologies and, of course, speak to one another. That conversation is ongoing, whether or not an elected leader chooses to participate in it.
When President Obama stepped to the podium in the first Twitter Town Hall, he did something unexpected: he asked a question. In return, he received a selection of answers that Jack Dorsey shared at the end of the event. For this remote participant, that moment was the most interesting aspect of event, singular as it was in many respects. The president asked a question, the public replied and he read the responses.
Given the demands on the president’s time, using Twitter like this all day isn’t likely to be scalable (he might consult with Newark Mayor @CoryBooker about his experience) but it’s not hard to see the potentially utility of asking a good question occasionally and collecting the answers with ThinkUpApp or something similar. The same is true for other elected leaders too, naturally.
Given that Plus enables comments and Hangouts, there are new possibilities for sharing presidential questions and answers there as well. If the president decides to “Hangout” at the White House* himself, he’d be tapping into a new form of the potential of the Internet to connect him with the people he was elected to serve. Given the president’s current job approval ratings, he could expect to encounter some discontent, but then that’s part of the role. As with any position of great responsibility, it has its pluses and minuses.
*Mike Kruger, director of new media at the Department of Commerce, pointed out a key stumbling block for the use of Hangouts by federal agencies and the White House: they’re “easier for campaign to do. Hangouts fail 508 compliance/accessibility.”