Rules for Using MySpace in Politics

Rules for Using MySpace in Politics

BY Joshua Levy | Monday, December 4 2006

This year, a handful of web sites and technologies that had been reshaping the cultural, economic, and political landscape finally made a tangible dent on American politics. Among other things, videos posted on YouTube arguably tilted the Virginia Senate race away from George Allen toward Jim Webb; Netroots bloggers like Matt Stoller at helped funnel Democratic funds to struggling candidates; and it was de rigueur for politicians, local or national, to set up user profiles on MySpace and Facebook.

This last phenomenon -- the political use of social networking sites -- is perhaps the hardest to quantify. While social scientists like Christian Williams and Jeff Gulati, whose work we profiled here, here, and here, have tried to find a correlation between support for a candidate's Facebook profile and real-world votes, I've been more and more curious about how political action actually happens on social networking sites.

To find out, I talked to Scott Goodstein and Ivan Boothe, two early pioneers of political action on MySpace. Goodstein's firm Catalyst Campaigns has become well known for helping groups develop campaigns on MySpace (groups include Save the Internet, Save1800Suicide, and The Best War Ever). Boothe is Director of Communications for the Genocide Intervention Network, a non-profit with the mission to "to empower individuals and communities with the tools to prevent and stop genocide." He was the primary architect of the group's MySpace profile, which has been successful at bringing attention to both the current conflict in Darfur and the Genocide Intervention Network's main web site.

After talking with Boothe and Goodstein, I realized there are four main rules about organizing on MySpace (and perhaps on Facebook and other sites as well). What follows is a breakdown of those rules with details from our discussion.

Four Rules of Organizing on MySpace

1. Reach Out to People Where They Congregate

Scott Goodstein likes to think of MySpace as a mall where thousands or millions of people are hanging around their favorites stores; some stick to punk-rock shops frequented by their favorite bands; others go to environmental stores preaching information about saving the whales. Outside of the mall, none of these denizens will necessarily vote for your candidate or volunteer for your cause, but if a campaign is a genuine outgrowth of the environment they hang out in, if it retains the language and style that environment, and if a few social leaders are devoted to the campaign and raise awareness within their social networks, you might get a response.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out ways to involve students in politics using online spaces they already frequent. "'Anything that gets young people involved in politics is great,' says University of Massachusetts political--science professor Ray La Raja. In teaching undergraduates, Mr. La Raja has struggled to find an approach that inspires students to become politically active. MySpace, he says, could be that venue."

Bringing political action to online spaces could help convert the image of politics from staid, inert, and out-of-touch to something that is distinctly connected to the attitudes and behaviors of young networked people. According to William Upski Wimsatt, Executive Director of the League of Young Voters, young people are more politically active than they've been in a generation. This is the group most seen on MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, and elsewhere, and they've brought their politics with them. Using MySpace for politics doesn't only involve developing profiles and campaigns, but discovering those political uses where they already exist.

2. MySpace Isn't Local (Except When It Is)

Networking in MySpace often works because it isn't dependent on local relationships; people become friends with MySpace users who could be down the street or across the country. "Friendships on MySpace aren't based across geographical lines. You are friends with people all over the country," Goodstein admits. Likewise, some organizations are too small to handle the intensive work of reaching out to local citizens. Sometimes it's easier to approach an issue with broad strokes, appealing to as many people as possible. Ivan Boothe calls it the "blunt, wide approach."

However, there is a local use for MySpace. "If you are friends with local bands, bars, etc., they might be local," Goodstein says. He likes to use the example of the local bartender with a MySpace profile. That bartender -- who is in contact with hundreds or thousands of people linked to a physical space -- could be an influential mover in MySpace, with thousands of friends who live in the same area and go to the same bar. Work with that bartender to promote a political platform, an activist campaign, or even a product, and you have access to a treasure trove of names.

Nevertheless, it's important not to forget the relative placelessness of MySpace. "Facebook is better at being local because it's based on college campuses," says Goodstein, though that might change now that Facebook is available to the general public.

Similarly for Boothe, raising awareness of a genocide in Darfur is, for most Internet users, an intensely global project. That may be why, in the case of the Genocide Intervention Project, it's also a successful one.

3. Let People Take Ownership

People are more likely to respond to a message if they feel invested in it. If done right, "people take ownership of your message and will spit it back out, read it, internalize it, and put it in their own words," says Goodstein. This is one way that social networking culture reflects open source software development and even the revised copyright solutions suggested by Lawrence Lessig and Creative Commons.

By creating a MySpace profile for an issue -- for example, the Save the Internet campaign in favor of Net Neutrality -- and letting users create the message by posting messages, uploading videos and pictures, and incorporating and developing their own social networks, you allow them to frame the issue in their own words. As Zack Exley has argued about union organizing, messages are more effective if you let people develop the stories themselves, in their own words, using their own experiences:

…a group of nursing home workers presented me with a fully laid--out, worker--written newsletter on a floppy disk — and demanded 800 copies by the next day to distribute to their coworkers. Writing "campaign lit" was the job of the organizer. So I felt immediately threatened. My next reaction was to want to edit the newsletter to make it more "on message" for the union. It was filled with short and long articles on everything from simple explanations of why they wanted a union (I wanted to bring those more in line with the official talking points) to emotional essays on why life as a care giver was so satisfying (I worried those would make people forget about the grievances that had sparked the union campaign).

The workers said, "No edits! Just print this out and we'll distribute it." The newsletter was an incredible hit. Workers were hiding in closets to read them. People came to the office for extra copies to give to family members. The newsletter turned out to be an incredibly powerful organizing tool because it showed people being a union, not just talking about one. It allowed the workers who were leading the union campaign to express a fully--formed tone and attitude of what the union was all about.

Offering concrete ideas for how to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem can give people a sense that they, as individuals, have a stake in an issue. The Genocide Intervention Network links to a list of "ten things you can do to stop genocide." Ivan Boothe argues that these steps, broken down into easily digestible chunks, give people an easy way to participate. Although they also link to the Genocide Intervention Network's main web site, that isn't always the point. "A number of these steps aren't even within our organization," Boothe says. This sort of advocacy is similar to bottom-up, open-source collaborative projects like Wikipedia, in which no one group has proprietary ownership over an idea or a product; instead, the goal is a constant generation of awareness and ideas. A MySpace page, says Boothe, isn't simply an advertisement for an organization, "it's a tool for mobilizing people for different kinds of action."

4. Fundraise Elsewhere

Getting people involved means getting them to donate money. What role does social networking play in fundraising?

Not much, say Goodstein and Boothe. The primary goals of a MySpace page are to make friends, generate awareness, and take action -- not necessarily to make money. However, MySpace is good for pushing users over to an organization's main page, and politicians and advocacy groups have noticed a substantial rise in online donations after launching social networking pages, as a recent article in the Wall Street Journal noted.

The main message I took away from both Boothe and Goodstein was that a MySpace profile is not a replacement for a campaign's homepage. Instead, it is meant to be part of a participatory ecosystem that campaigns must set up. Homepages are important because they contain details about who runs the campaign, how to contribute money, white papers, and other necessary but less than thrilling information. MySpace profiles are the equivalent to canvassing on the street or in a mall; they are part of a larger outreach effort. Just as it's a mistake to think that the web will itself replace other media, it's also a mistake to think that MySpace or Facebook profiles are simply lazy or trendy ways of gaining an online footprint. That said, it's becoming increasingly clear that a campaign without a social networking profile will be taken less seriously in the coming years.

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