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How Social Networks Like Facebook and Twitter, and Blogs Are Shaping Politics and Our World


The increasing connectivity that social networking allows has transformed our lives. At the same time, use of these powerful tools has been redefining politics. Facebook, Facebook logoTwitter, and Blogs are rapidly supplanting television, radio, and newspapers as information sources of choice.

This computer driven transformation was foreshadowed in author Ray Kurzweil's book The Age of Spiritual Machines. That groundbreaking tome contains sharp predictions that continue to come true. When it was published in 1999 you could purchase the print edition at a bookstore. This very moment you have just read about it on a website. At twitter logoyour preference, that book can be downloaded to whatever media device you own. A far cry from how information was disseminated a few short decades ago.

Television broadcast news outlets still facilitate mass message transmission. Many radio talk shows reach core, sometimes massive, niche audiences. But, with the staggering effectiveness of new technology, political candidates are interacting with their audiences directly. Traditional media outlets are adapting in a way that is similar to how radio adjusted to the rise of television in 1950's.

For generations newspapers and the “Big Three” television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) had massive power. That fused box began to short back in the 1980's with the advent of cable television. Through the late 1990's CNN was the dominant cable brand with a worldwide reach.

CNN set a visual trend all would follow by placing their logo directly on the television screen. It helped to distinguish the channel amongst a growing sea of choices and was as distinguishable as a Nike swoosh on sneakers. Companies often borrow from marketing strategies that were first employed by completely different industries. The new 24 hour news cycle took political scandal television to a whole new level.

During the first decade of this century, many television networks began to visually resemble websites, with a constant stream of information moving across the screen and mouse like arrows clicking on information presented on it. The CNBC stock ticker was adapted by CNN and other channels into a news ticker. Obviously people's ubiquitous gravitation to the world wide web was recognized and catered to in order to try and maintain audience loyalty. Many national candidates have actually become nothing more than brand names marketed through all of these various media impressions.

With so many channel choices, cable executives clearly made the decision to specialize and carve their own corner of the market. Each plays to it's own audience segment. MSNBC and HBO reach for progressives, Fox for conservatives, and CNN presents itself as a somewhat centric, never-ending, newscast.

While no longer growing, cable news still has influence over politics. At various points in the day, especially during prime time, Fox News has been pulling in more viewers than the other top cable networks combined. These numbers do reflect how specific audiences are choosing to get their information. So, where Bill O'Reilly draws approximately three million viewers a night, and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann around one million, the other cable channels: CNN, CNN Headline News, and CNBC draw below five hundred thousand viewers. Conservative viewers, more so than progressives, are selecting cable television as their preferred source for political news.

Other cable personalities, like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Chris Matthews, Rachael Maddow, and Anderson Cooper draw sizable viewers as well. On a nightly basis Hannity and Beck reach nearly two million people, with Maddow at just under one million, and Cooper and Matthews around three quarters of a million viewers. Some of these cable personalities have, or had, radio careers as well.

Today, broadcast and cable television networks make sure to inform their viewers that they are also accessible through social networking sites. This shift belies another transition away from traditional media outlets for information. We are all learning how to navigate and tailor these technology trends to our own needs. The dual sources of individual branding and information sharing, known as Facebook and Twitter, are remaking how people communicate and gather information. Anyone who wants to stay current stays connected.

Johannes Gutenberg is widely credited with inventing the printing press, during the 1400's, in Germany. Gutenberg's most famous publication was The Bible. He facilitated a system of delivering information to the masses in way that was effective, efficient, and Medieval user-friendly.

Centuries later Bill Gates (co-founder of Microsoft) and Steve Jobs (co-founder of Apple) both sparked a revolution that led to public accessibility of the internet through personal computers. The internet is, in its simplest form, a way to transfer information. In the political world, the evolving synergy between voters and politicians is allowing the powerful and the power-challenged to mingle at online cocktail parties.

Gutenberg 2.0 is now in full force. Devices like the iPad and the Kindle allow books to move from print to digital text, press releases to become Tweets, and broadcasts to become podcasts. Everything old is new again.

Current information transformations have also given rise to the “new” newspapers. Paper editions of newspapers have morphed into internet form. Take a great idea, make it current, and brand it with a different name, the Blog.

There are a wide array of blogs for all political persuasions: Typed or clicked destinations such as: Politics Daily, Huffington Post, Drudge Report, The Onion, and Politico, amongst many others, represent the newspapers of the 21st century.

Blogs are driving stories onto traditional newspaper cable news headlines. The interactivity actually does give anyone the ability to be involved with news, rather than simply being presented with it. Traditional newspapers, in response, have created their own blogs connected to their online masthead. Political blogs disseminate messages in a powerful way to specific audiences. Within seconds one can retrieve hundreds of blog updates from Google News or Google Trends.

In terms of audiences, how many Facebook friends do you have? President Obama has nearly fourteen million on his most populated page. While Sarah Palin has over two million friends. This indicates that the President's supporters are more geared to social networking than conservatives currently are. However, in the Pennsylvania Senatorial race, Pat Toomey (R) has over 14,000 Facebook friends compared to Joe Sestak (D), who has slightly under 10,000. In the California Governor's race over 128,000 people are friends of Meg Whitman (R), compared to over 81,000 for Jerry Brown (D).

So, what does this digital domination translate into for the upcoming mid-term elections and the big one to come in 2012? The power to use social networks to influence statewide elections is yet to be seen, but it could indicate how certain candidates are arming themselves for battle. Facebook friends could translate into many election day votes for the person who is “liked.” Plus, these social networks are used to activate campaign troops in the year-long process that ushers in the primary election.

A few short years ago it seemed as though younger people used the internet and older people watched television. While those comparisons are still not completely off base, the technology-use gap has been shrinking about as fast as the number of homes that receive a newspaper on their doorstep. Teenagers are not only contacting their BFF's, they are also texting Grandma. A lady who, by the way, probably has a BlackBerry.

This prosperous age of the new media will certainly continue to evolve. In political terms, candidates who have recognized the new reality are also helping to shape it. The public will stay connected by increasing participation through through posts, tweets, and bookmarked websites of their choice.

Contact Sean O'Brien at seanboru68@yahoo.com