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Using the Social Internet to Facilitate Democracy
Emily Gertz, 31 Aug 07
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The US presidential hopefuls are not ignoring the internet...but they're not getting it, either. Or maybe they don't really want to. Witness this week's breathless announcement from the election effort of former Massachussetts governor Mitt Romney (R) about its "Team Mitt: Create Your Own Ad!" contest, unprecedented initiative to create the campaign's new television advertisement by empowering grassroots supporters of Governor Mitt Romney. The winner of the contest will become the first amateur ever to have his or her work used as an official television advertisement for a presidential campaign.

...[S]upporters from across the country will be able to utilize an innovative video editing platform to create their own ad by remixing or "mashing up" a large variety of the campaign's photos, videos and audio clips, as well as their own multimedia content.

Of course there's nothing especially "unprecedented" about such an online initiative; companies have been offering up their advertising memes for user manipulations for a few years now. Sometimes they've backfired hilariously -- as when people used the "design your own commercial for the Chevy Tahoe" campaign to put messages about global warming and the Iraq War (read: war for oil) over video of the Chevy SUV cruising along a ruggedly scenic landscape. And sometimes they've caught 'net fire -- like Subservient Chicken, Burger King's wink-wink-nudge-nudge viral marketing sensation of 2004.

Both advertising efforts targeted net-savvy 20-somethings, hoping they'd be energized enough by the opportunity for "mass customization" of an aging American brand to do the companies' promotional work for them, lending the goods some of their youthful glow in the process. That may be what campaign staffers for Romney hope will happen with the "Create Your Own Ad!" contest, and it's probably what Hillary Clinton's team hoped to achieve with her "pick my campaign song" contest.

The unfortunate thing is this: who gets nominated to run for the US presidency is exponentially more important than selling cars or burgers. And rather than making a real effort to use networked communications to engage voters and re-energize the American democratic process, these kinds of shallow offerings are the campaign equivalents of using a web interface to dominate a man-sized chicken in a garter belt.

Team Mitt enthuses that the create an ad contest demonstrates the campaign's "commitment to using unique and democratizing online tools to engage voters and harness the extraordinary enthusiasm of its growing team of supporters"; nowhere is there a mention of engaging voters on the issues that matter to their lives, and about the present and future of the nation.

(And even in its own context, this contest is behind the times: Obama Girl beat Romney's team to harnessing "the extraordinary enthusiasm" of a supporter with homemade online video over two months ago.)

Let's see what else is out there. The Clinton campaign's "Join the Team" page has a prominent up-front "ask" for the user's volunteer time and energy, as well as a perfunctory checklist of broad issue areas for the user to select from. The "start a blog" and "plan an event" tools are there...but they're buried in the site's menu of numerous selections.

Compare this to the Barack Obama campaign, which seems to grasp how the social internet can engage and connect voters with the campaign, with the issues, and to each other. is a mySpace-type portal that offers members the tools to blog, connect with other supporters via "friends" lists, find and plan events, form online groups, and more.

At least in appearance, this effort seems to grasp that the social internet is as much about giving participants opportunities they'll value, as about getting something of value from them. If the campaign is using them sincerely, these tools do have the potential to facilitate the American democratic process, rather than reducing it to the level of selling a car.

I'd like to hear from people using these online campaign tools -- who's joining you in using them? How well are they connecting you with the candidate's campaign, and other supporters? Drop me a line via the Worldchanging suggest a story form.

Image: Still from "I Got a Crush...On Obama" By Obama Girl

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