Obama Beats Justin Bieber: How Social Media Elected A President


Obama beats the boy @ www.ryanseacrest.com

Social media is our BFF. Our very best BFF (VBBFF?). Easy to access, always available when needed and, at the end of the day, there to hold our hand during times of need. Like, say, a national election.

If you sat alone on election night chewing your nails, pacing the room; fixated on MSNBC (or FOX, if you’re here reading for the other side!), then you likely felt less alone by virtue of social media. You filled the “loneliness gap” by tweeting and re-tweeting your election night jitters or you were on Facebook gasping as good news came in, arguing with your uncle about who was the bigger “hypocrite,” or participating in a group hug when the election was called…at which point, newly-elected President Obama hit Twitter before he talked to the big news networks, according to the Los Angeles Times:

Right after the television networks projected that he had won reelection, the first thing President Obama did was thank supporters — not with a statement to the media or in an email, but in a tweet.

“We’re all in this together. That’s how we campaigned, and that’s who we are. Thank you,” Obama messaged his nearly 23 million followers on Twitter.

During this election–which garnered more attention online than any in recent memory–social media not only became the tool with which we expressed our opinions and shared our feelings about all things political, but it literally changed the way elections are conducted. According to the LA Times:

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“This is really the first time election night became a conversation,” said Joe Green, the 29-year-old co-founder and president of NationBuilder, a Los Angeles company that builds online organizing tools for campaigns. “I was in a room with 50 people watching TV, but I was having a conversation with thousands of people on Facebook.

“Election night has always been a communal experience, but people wanted to stay awake and engaged to be part of the larger conversation of history being made. I shouted more at my phone than the people sitting next to me.”

For those who maintain that social media is the devil, disconnecting us from “real people” and the community at large, it would seem the exact opposite is true. While 67 million people sat on their couches passively watching network news coverage (interrupting the view only to get up from time to time to hit the bathroom or grab some snacks), 306 million on Facebook and 11 million on Twitter engaged in active, animated, minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow conversations throughout the night (according to research firm Experian Hitwise), turning the experience into one of the biggest communal events in the short history of social media.

Of course there’s a downside; there’s always a downside when it comes to the Internet. There were countless people throughout this past year of the campaign who bemoaned the saturation of Facebook with political screeds and angry–sometimes ugly–debates about the candidates. More than one friend (and not just “friends”–as in, Facebook acquaintances–but real friends) “broke up” over the discovery of a heretofore unknown political stance or the sputtering of offensive speech on political threads. Facebook, with its ease of picture-posting, was often the recipient of the sort of repugnant, vile propaganda that incites race riots or barroom brawls, and it became clear that every person had to set their own personal boundaries, “de-friending” as needed, or actually taking a hiatus, depending on their level of tolerance.

I had one friend who repeatedly pleaded to “turn Facebook back into the place we know and love, where we talk about our vacations and post pictures of the kids.” She was politely shot down by a number of more politically-oriented folks who instructed her that Facebook is “whatever one chooses it to make it,” with accompanying suggestions that she learn how to use the delete button. Another friend posted a dramatic announcement that she was leaving Facebook because she was “tired of people not understanding what’s being said and getting all ugly about it.” I have no idea to what she was referring, but she did, in fact, “leave the island”…at least for now. (Most come back.)

Meanwhile, Twitter, with its 140-character limitation and a scrolling feed updating so fast that one must either jump in with all limbs or risk being left behind, provided a more nimble template for election commentary. I found Twitter more fun than Facebook during the debates, as that type of rapidly unfolding event seemed perfect fodder for quick quips, hilarious one-offs, and wise statements from those in the know. (Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker has become a social media star based on his Twitter presence.) There, too, alas, some users got in trouble for “over-tweeting” (with its dreaded “spam” assignation) or–according to the conspiracy theorists–for expressing hyper-controversial views (which seems silly, given the wide and polar spectrum of expressed opinions all over Twitter). Even the hideous Westboro Baptist Church has a Twitter account.

The main point expressed in the many post-election decompression conversations in which I’ve participated, is the sense of community that social media evoked. The feeling that–whether you were alone in your apartment, sitting with friends and family around the TV, or checking in remotely from a bar somewhere–the people with whom you engaged on social media were paying attention not only to the election, but to you. They were responding to your threads, replying to your Tweets, making comments about the articles or images you posted, creating a sort of “election village” in which friends could huddle and share the experience together. It was quite phenomenal.

When Rachel Maddow on MSNBC looked up and said, “Ohio goes to Obama; he has just won re-election,” both my Facebook and Twitter literally exploded in response; I couldn’t write, respond, shout or laugh fast enough. Answering the phone–which rang off the hook at that moment–seemed almost an interruption to the party happening on Facebook!

Obama may have used TV ads to “suppress the vote” (as cranky Karl Rove has ludicrously accused) by “saying to people, ‘you may not like who I am, and I know you can’t bring yourself to vote for me, but I’m going to paint this other guy as simply a rich guy who only cares about himself” (how dare he, Karl, right?!),” but social media is where the campaign hit its stride. According to the LA Times piece:

After Obama’s campaign tweeted a photograph of Obama embracing First Lady Michelle Obama, it became social media’s most shared image ever, shattering even Justin Bieber records. The image has been retweeted more than 725,000 times and got more than 3 million likes on Facebook. [Emphasis mine.]

When a fifty-something President and First Lady can garner more social media attention than a teen idol with dreamy hair, it’s clear we’re at the dawn of a new, and likely to be tweeted, day.

Follow Lorraine Devon Wilke on TwitterFacebook and Rock+Paper+Music; for her archive at Addicting info click here; details and links to her other work: www.lorrainedevonwilke.com.