The 2008 contest for the White House may go down in history as the first social media election. How else to explain the unprecedented role the Web played in this year's Presidential contest, an influence scarcely imaginable just four years ago? In 2004 many social networking sites were just getting off the blocks. YouTube, for example, was introduced early the following year. And microblogging sites like Twitter wouldn't emerge until the 2008 Presidential campaign was getting under way.
It's not just that individual voters had access to a wider range of information about candidates and their positions on issues. Unlike in any other Presidential election, the electorate could harness a panoply of social media tools—blogs, social networks, photo and video sharing sites—to broadcast to the world their thoughts about the candidates and their experiences of the electoral process.
Voters' willingness to bring the democratic process to the Web was made most plain on Nov. 4. While the act of voting has traditionally been considered a private activity, on this Election Day voters enthusiastically parted the voting booth curtain to share their experiences on the Internet. Some wanted to advertise their support of a particular candidate or ballot measure. Others saw it as a chance to shine a light on flaws inherent to the election process. Whatever the reason, phone cameras and other multimedia devices were common at polling places, as many voters felt compelled to make a record of their experience in pictures and video and then upload and share them through sites like Flickr (YHOO) and Google's (GOOG) YouTube, both of which hosted special pages for election content.
Facebook Vote Tally
Many of their images recorded the unique characteristics of the 2008 election: huge numbers of young people and minorities casting ballots—some for the first time. Voters also encountered longer than usual lines. In one video uploaded to YouTube's "Video Your Vote" site, a voter in Virginia Beach (Va.) declared: "I've voted at this location for the last 17 years, and never had to wait more than a few minutes…. There are actually hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people here, waiting to cast their votes in this key swing state."
Many voters used social media sites simply to celebrate the voting process with friends. Nowhere was that more evident than on social networking site Facebook, which kept a running tally of users who checked a box on the site to declare to their friends that they voted. As of 10:30 p.m. Eastern time, the number reached almost 4.9 million. Other Facebook users sent each other virtual Obama or McCain buttons, or pledged their support to either candidate with wall posts on their respective pages. "That peer-to-peer contact is a core part of actually driving voter turnout and behavior," says Facebook's chief privacy officer, Chris Kelly.
Twitter, the microblogging service that has turned into an important national and international watercooler of nearly live conversations on all topics, showed its influence as millions sent text messages saying they had voted and describing conditions at polling places. Having gained a reputation for crashing under the crush of heavy use over the summer, Twitter showed no signs of strain on Election Day. Its page dedicated to political messages from its 3 million-odd users delivered a steady live stream of political banter throughout the day, as it had for weeks leading up to the election. "Just so you all know, if Obama wins I will NOT scream tampering or that it was rigged. Do us the same courtesy if McCain wins, please," wrote Twitter poster Jeremiah Daws from Georgia.
"Is Obama nervous about Virginia? I received two text messages in the past 10 minutes telling me to vote. Enough already!" wrote Twitter user Robert Bluey at about 6:30 p.m. ET from the hotly contested state of Virginia. He referred to messages sent throughout the day to voters who had registered to receive text messages on their mobile phones. The missives implored them to vote and to exercise what influence they could on friends and family: ""People who love their country can change it! …Make sure everyone you know votes for Barack today."
Social media also made it easy for some voters to express their frustration with aspects of the electoral process. "I bet we'll see stories on election irregularities broken via social networks," says Josh Bernoff, a vice-president at Forrester Research (FORR). On sites like Election Protection, created by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and other partners, voters phoned in and e-mailed reports about various problems they encountered: malfunctioning machines in Florida, ballot shortages in Virginia, and absentee ballots delivered belatedly in Georgia.
Anyone surveying the digital political landscape would have to be struck by the apparent strength of Democrats online. A Forrester report from last December found Democrats to be at least 10% more likely to participate in all forms of online social activity than the average U.S. adult. Yet even though fewer Republicans bother to consume social media than Democrats, nearly half of GOP members are social media regulars, Forrester found.
No one, however, accused online election activity of being all serious, all the time. In a campaign season that featured lighter moments, like the widely circulated YouTube video "I Have a Crush on Obama," Nov. 4 was no exception. In the morning, CNN reported that "Naked Cowboy," the guitar-player-in-skivvies who occupies Times Square, pledged an endorsement for McCain—and the story become one of the "hot topics" on Twitter's election page. In the virtual world Second Life, avatars crowded into election-related islands and parties and awaited election results.
Part of the social media frenzy over the Presidential election is a reflection of the historical significance of the first African American running for U.S. President during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and while the nation is engaged in unpopular wars in two countries. That mood was captured by one Facebook user who updated his status as Obama began his acceptance speech: "Yes we did," he posted, echoing the President-elect's campaign slogan, "Yes We Can."