Mark 2012 as history's last 'social media' election

The role of the Internet grows every election. Soon its uniqueness will no longer be unique -- and, argues Marc Andreessen, elections will be entirely online.

Paul Sloan Former Editor
Paul Sloan is editor in chief of CNET News. Before joining CNET, he had been a San Francisco-based correspondent for Fortune magazine, an editor at large for Business 2.0 magazine, and a senior producer for CNN. When his fingers aren't on a keyboard, they're usually on a guitar. Email him here.
Paul Sloan
4 min read
Twitter's Election Day 2012 event page

As soon as President Obama offered the phrase "horses and bayonets" during his final debate with Mitt Romney last month, the Twitterverse lit up. It wasn't long before we learned that the quip turned out to be the most tweeted remark of the final presidential debate, good for some 105,767 tweets per minute.

The media duly took note of the occasion. In fact, each time there's big news -- Hurricane Sandy or a presidential debate -- the media quickly inform us how the event is playing out on social media. Indeed, we've come to expect such details as tweets per minute, and even tweets per second. But this seeming fascination with all things social as something separate, even novel, maybe a fleeting phenomenon, as 2012 could be a turning point of sorts -- the last U.S. presidential election in which the media pore over every detail about what's going on with social media.

Why? At some point, it's simply no longer surprising. It just...is.

First, however, the Internet will need to play an even bigger role in an election than it currently does. And that, says Marc Andreessen, one of Silicon Valley's best-known and often spot-on prognosticators, is inevitable.

Marc Andreessen Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

"There is going to be a national election that is going to be about the Internet the way that 1960 was about TV for the first time with the Kennedy/Nixon debate," says Andreessen. "That hasn't happened yet. Best guess would be 2016, but could be 2020 or conceivably one of the midterms 2014 or 2018...When that happens, everything changes. The spending will tip, and the campaigning methods will change."

What the catalyst is for that, Andreessen says, is anybody's guess.

"It might be social media, it might be live streaming high-definition video, it might be an AMA [ask me anything] on Reddit -- or some new form of micro-targeting of voters -- or some new form of lifecasting. I don't think we can guess yet."

Already, there is ample evidence testifying to the extent of the digital impact on the rival campaigns. It's no stretch to suggest, as did researchers Paul Springer and Mel Carson, that 2012 may go down as the Twitter election. But this is about more than just Twitter, although that microblogging service has turned into a powerful medium to help the rival sides shape their message.

This year's election season has certainly moved us a lot closer to that point Andreessen talks about, with both campaigns turning to online ad targeting and using social media in unprecedented ways. For good reason: Social media is where voters are, and it's where they express themselves. A recent Pew Internet & American Life Project study found that 66 percent of the adults using Twitter and Facebook do so in part to conduct civil and political activity. Ignoring that audience would be foolish.

In 2008, then-candidate Obama's use of Facebook to reach voters was widely covered because it was so new. Facebook, which had only just left Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard dorm room during the 2004 election, boasted more than 100 million worldwide users when the 2008 election came around. (The company won't break out its U.S. adult users.) Facebook became a way for Obama to reach young people and to set himself apart from his far older Republican opponent, John McCain.

"It was still a novelty and a sidelight," Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project, said of using Facebook to drum up political support. "That's why Obama owned the space as much as he did. Now everybody is sure of it."

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Which is why this time around both campaigns leaned on Facebook heavily to reach potential voters. Using Facebook was as obvious as running TV ads. After all, Facebook now boasts more than 171 million users in the U.S. alone. Importantly, Facebook can influence voters. A recent study, led by the University of California at San Diego and based on the 2010 election, found that peer pressure mattered: People seeing that their friends had voted did, in fact, make them go to the polls.

Twitter, however, is a different story. Twitter was a toddler during the 2008 election, a tool used almost entirely by the tech world that had yet to burst into the mainstream.

Yet Twitter has proven itself an invaluable tool this season. Consider:

  • Tweets drove real donations. In a study Twitter conducted after the first presidential debate, the company said that people exposed to any kind of political tweet were 98 percent more likely to visit a donation page as the average person on Twitter. Not only that, but the average Twitter user is 68 percent more likely to visit such a page than the average Internet user.
  • Get-out-the-vote tweets abound. Twitter is all about personal influence, and this election some of those with the biggest influence -- celebs such Ashley Judd and Justin Bieber -- are urging their tens of millions of followers to vote.
  • Who's tweeting what? It was late in the race, but last week Twitter rolled out a political engagement map that lets anyone see where people are tweeting most about specific political issues. The tool lets you search a term (say, abortion) that then creates a map showing which states have the highest engagement level (and on which side of the political aisle) for tweets featuring the term posted by either Obama or his challenger, Mitt Romney.

In future elections, these tools will doubtless become more integral to elections; savvy politicians will focus even more on Twitter strategies. They'll spend a large chunk on social media and, eventually -- as Andreessen mentioned -- the Internet overall will dominate in the way that television did this year. "You'd have to say 2012 was still more about TV," says Andreessen.

And then?

"I think it's obvious that the 2024 election will be conducted entirely online," says Andreessen. "The entire thing, front to back, all the advertising, and most likely including voting itself. Between here and there things should be very interesting."

Watch this: What voting will look like in the future