John Romant's Technology Blog

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Politicians are still missing the point of social media.


August 4, 2010

We’ve heard it before: it’s “the YouTube election”, the “Facebook election” or the “Twitter election”, and 2010 in Australia promises to be no different. Social media collectively are a new phenomenon in election campaigns as shown by the Obama Online Operation in 2008 and, to some extent, the 2007 Australian federal election and the recent British election.

However, while the volume of social media use is increasing as fast as the volume of television does during commercial breaks, what politicians and political parties are doing in social media is mostly “same old, same old”.

True, there are cool-sounding “social spaces”, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter links on a growing number of political websites and the Prime Minister has joined a bevy of other politicians on Twitter.

// <![CDATA[// While Twitter did not exist in 2007 and Facebook was in its infancy as an open social network, the last Australian federal election was hailed as the “YouTube election”. But the reality was quite different.

A study of 2007 online election campaigning found that only 26 of Australia’s 226 sitting federal politicians (11.5 per cent) had a MySpace site; only eight (3.5 per cent) had a Facebook site; 15 (6.6 per cent) published a blog; and only 13 (5.8 per cent) posted videos on YouTube. That was then, what about now?

Research shows that at the end of 2009, 152 Australian politicians were using Twitter. Their loquaciousness varies from more than 1600 tweets in 10 months by South Australian Premier Mike Rann to just one or two tweets by other pollies in the period. However, most significantly, politicians mostly “broadcast” on Twitter rather than engage in dialogue, and most aim for lots of “followers” but only “follow” a few people themselves. What this shows is that politicians are using social media primarily to talk and distribute their messages rather than listen.

Another study published this year by researchers at the University of Maryland brings home a key message about social media. Interviews with communication and information staff in 49 US federal, state and local government agencies found that citizens do not want more information from governments and politicians – they want governments and politicians to listen more.

Social media is not just another media channel. Its unique characteristic is its interactivity – its two-way capability to allow citizens to have a say and be heard. The danger in the current election campaign, as in much government and corporate communication, is that our leaders will just keep talking and won’t stop to listen.

Also, social media do not provide a panacea for public communication. They are part of the mediascape feeding into and feeding off mainstream media and used for a variety of purposes.

What most forget about the social media-savvy Obama campaign is that most online action was directed at fund-raising. Also, Obama’s high-profile online campaign, which included 400,000 blog posts, 2 million “fans” in, and 18 million hours of online video viewing, was integrated with mainstream media publicity and advertising as well as face-to-face communication. Much of Obama’s online communication was designed to mobilise local on-the-ground campaigning such as street and house meetings.

The key to social media is being sociable – not distributing packaged slogans and polemic.

Jim Macnamara is professor of public communication at the University of Technology Sydney. He conducted a study of social media use by Australian politicians and political parties in the 2007 federal election and is repeating his study in 2010. This is part of an ongoing series of articles by Australian academics on key issues during the election campaign.



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