I watched the election coverage over the weekend. It seems the news media have taken to making bold statements and speculations on social media's -- specifically MySpace and Facebook's -- role in the increased turnout among young voters.
There are few people who are bigger proponents of social media's potential than myself ("Social Media's Election Effect"). However, to simply assign a causal relationship between people's interactions within social media ("Social Networks And Politics - 'Snakes on a Plane' 2?") and people's actions in the real world without understanding or explaining is at best meaningless, and at worst irresponsible.
We should be intently focused on understanding the relationship between people's social media interactions and their real-world actions, from voting to buying a product. To do this we need to understand what social media is.
Social Media is an online reflection of the social interactions people have in the real world. Social media is a way of more efficiently managing and enhancing people's capacity to communicate with other people. Social media is where people create a digital representation of themselves for other people to see. Social media is person-to-person communication that is observable and measurable like no other medium of communication before it. Social media allows people to share messages that matter to them.
If social media is a digital reflection of real-world social interactions, the first question we would have to pose is: Can social media really drive youth voter turnout, or are young voters' interest and excitement surrounding this election simply being reflected in social media? In true political fashion, I would have to say it is a bit of both. Social media, like many other communications advancements, is only a conduit through which a message can flow from person to person. It's just that social media is a better conduit than we have ever seen. Social media will allow for a truly electric message to flow more efficiently than ever before, but it requires the message to have a power of its own ("Forget Innovative; Be Inspiring").
Because social media allows people to create a digital representation of self, they can learn things about the people they interact with that might never have come up in any other form of social interaction. For example, they could have a casual friend for many years and never know his or her political leanings. But if they visit that person's social networking page, or monitor their Facebook news feed, they can learn what political views and politicians their friends, family, colleagues and mentors "endorse." These endorsements have the ability to create more discussion and have more impact than all of the celebrity endorsements combined. But all this can only create an awareness of choice. Whether it inspires action in the real world still resides in the choice offered to people in the real world.
Another fact cited is that all the candidates have a MySpace/Facebook page. Social media's power is in people-to-people communication, not politician-to-people communication. The text, images and videos on a candidate's MySpace page likely sound similar to what would have been available on his or her Web site (perhaps with a little more focus on the age demo), and it's likely the same thing the candidate says to a crowd at a college. Creating a social networking page does not magically "plug" a candidate into the young. It simply enables people to share what the candidate says. What the candidate says is still what matters.
So what is social media's role in youth voter turnout? The easiest way to think about it is this: Social media does not create a "spike" in real-world activities. However, social media can significantly amplify the size, speed and duration of spikes.
While the difference is subtle, it is important. To attribute the increase in youth voter turnout to social media alone unfairly discounts the real importance of the excitement young voters have found surrounding this election. We should not do this. Instead, we should listen more carefully, because social media lets us listen to everything (far more than we can process today). We have the ability not only to have a message spread from person to person, but watch what messages people choose to share -- and arm them with the ability to enhance and share a message. If candidates do this right and in an authentic manner, there is no limit to what social media could mean for the future of political participation, and to an individual candidate's success.