It is less than ten months until Election Day in the United States, but the presidential campaign season has already seen two historic firsts, including the emergence of the first plausible African American presidential candidate and the first female front-runner. This is also the first national political campaign in which interactive social networking websites such as MySpace (with its 110 million Internet users) are playing a significant, perhaps crucial, role in youth voter education and participation. VOA's Adam Phillips reports.
The jaunty music that MySpace and MTV users hear at the beginning of the Presidential Dialog programs, a series of interactive candidate/MySpace user forums being broadcast over the Internet and on MTV throughout this presidential election season, belies the seriousness of its purpose.
Almost anyone with an Internet connection can register into MySpace for free and get what amounts to a personal and customizable webpage within the MySpace domain. From this platform, users can exchange information about themselves and their interests in a variety of formats with other MySpace users of their choosing. These fellow users are called "friends." With most of its user-members between the ages of 18 of 35, Myspace.com is one of the Internet's most dynamic and powerful social and political networks.
This year, all the major presidential candidates have created their own MySpace pages and have added thousands of "friends" with whom they can share information about themselves and their policy positions. MySpace users can then learn about particular candidates, and comment or express support on their own MySpace pages. By making their personal verdicts on the candidates public, users can influence the virtual "community of friends" who view their pages.
"There is different software they can download to show how they are following a candidate, and what their candidate is doing and why they are excited about them," says MySpace political director Lee Brenner, who helped engineer the program. "They can post bulletins and email their friends without having to leave MySpace."
This setup also helps candidates reach more young and undecided voters with the sort of personalized referrals that are gold in political campaigns. When, for example, a person is "friends" with Hillary Clinton, and other people are also "friends" with that person, Clinton gets a MySpace "link" to those other people.
But MySpace also enables an even more intimate connection between candidates and voters through series of interactive forums being broadcast over the Internet and on MTV throughout this presidential election season.
Unlike typical forums or debates, when candidates take questions from experienced political reporters and pundits, questions in the MySpace/MTV forums are emailed in during the forums by MySpace users.
The format also allows audience members to give candidates near-instant feedback about the candidates' answers. A viewer simply clicks on a button on the relevant MySpace page. The cumulative results are then tallied and shown to the candidate.
Prior to the Iowa Caucus one user asked Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama a question about the war in Iraq. "We then asked the users that were watching him give his answer, how he was answering," recounts Brenner. "We were then able to give him feedback within a couple of minutes saying 'Senator Obama, 60 percent of the people that were watching liked your answer. But there were 40 percent who think you need to add a little bit more.'" The moderator was then able to elicit a clarified response, thus deepening the dialog between the audience and the candidate.
The benefits of this interaction run two ways. MySpace users are better informed about where candidates stand on particular issues, and they feel they have a candidate's ear. And candidates can use the feedback they receive to tailor their pitch to young voters whose support will be crucial in the state primaries and later, in the general election.
It may be more than coincidence that Senator Obama, who participated in a MySpace/MTV forum in Iowa, clinched the primary there, and Senator McCain won New Hampshire following his virtual town meeting with MySpace/MTV users.
"The Internet levels the playing field for everyone," adds Brenner, "and I think it absolutely played a role in the election process thus far."
Brenner also believes that the interactivity MySpace has introduced in its forums is trickling out to old, more traditional mainstream media forums and debates.
For example, when CNN partnered with the YouTube video sharing website, users were asked to upload questions to candidates in the form of homemade videos. In Brenner's view, that method was not as interactive as the MySpace/MTV project, "but the ability to create interaction between MySpace users and voters and candidates is what voters are looking for."
This social networking technology has important uses besides electoral politics. MySpace also has a huge potential for activists about issues ranging from international development and community building, to environmentalism and human rights.
Who knows? With trends like this, the Age of the Internet could usher in an era of unprecedented citizen enlightenment. And who knows where that could lead?