When then-Congressman Newt Gingrich authored his Contract With America and led the revolution that put the Republicans back into the majority in the US House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, the Internet was in its infancy: Netscape was the number one browser, Google wasn’t in the dictionary, Mark Zuckerberg was in elementary school and twitter was still the verb used to describe what old ladies did in reaction to one another’s “saucy” exchanges. CNN, with its 24 hours a day, seven days a week vast expanse of programming time to fill, was the media platform of choice for politicians to wax eloquent or ad nauseum.
Seventeen years later, the now 67 year old Newt took to Twitter and Facebook this week to announce his candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination for 2012. He followed other GOP hopefuls Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, who over the last several weeks have also used social media to make big, Presidential ambition announcements. Set aside for a minute the irony of three older white guys who not too long ago would have been clamoring for airtime on CNN now deciding to communicate their aspirations via these channels of increasingly pervasive influence and reach. Even more startling is the delicious irony of Gingrich, a gassy windbag of historic proportion, endeavoring to curtail his overblown puffery to 140 characters – and therein lies the remarkable juxtaposition of social media and US politics.
A new media paradigm that favors brevity, truncated exposition, emoticons and acronyms to communicate even the most deeply felt thoughts and feelings does not, at first glance, seem well-suited to the often-jarring combination of soaring rhetoric and stultifying pontification that infuses the dialogue of the American political process. Obama, despite his own tendency to oratorical flights of fancy, got it right in 2008 by assembling a team of social media wunderkind to craft his message for the Facebook generation and who borrowed heavily from Marshall McLuhan in recognizing that the medium truly is the message.
As Twitter matures, Facebook becomes more corporate and embracing of its enormous marketing potential, and our culture at large — from tweens nearing the voting age to aging baby boomers voting to preserve health care and Social Security — continues to gain more social media fluency, it will be fascinating to observe the impact on our political process. Can a candidate for President of the United States of America in 2012 really convey the complexity of his/her health care plan in 140 characters, or propose new social policy within the narrow confines of a Facebook update? They will have to, because fluency in this new communications world demands brevity and shuns the rhetoric and oratory that historically drove campaigns and their candidates to the Oval Office. For those of us in communications, we will be watching closely at how this cycle of campaign consultants craft their candidates messages to fit within these new parameters. There will be little margin for error and great opportunity to continue to redefine how politicians communicate with their constituencies. In a dystopian world it might get someone like Sarah Palin elected…but my money’s on O.
–Brian T. Regan