September 21, 2008
Facebook Opens New Political Chapter Facebook Opens New Political Chapter
I HAVE AN eclectic group of new friends. They include Republican and Democratic legislators and a candidate for lieutenant governor. There are a dozen lobbyists crusading for everything from payday lending restrictions to the rights of tow truck operators. And then there's the guy with the cowboy hat, a shotgun and a blue puffy vest.
All of these folks have "friended" me (friend is a verb on the Internet) through the social networking sites Facebook and LinkedIn. Facebook - the largest network at more than 70 million strong - has long been a way for teenagers to flirt, gossip and trumpet their social lives. But it's a bit weird to find politicians, government officials and big-time attorneys posting messages on each others' "walls."
It's too soon to tell whether Facebook will prove to be an enormous waste of time for legions of well-paid lobbyists and political consultants, or a fundamental re-thinking of campaigns, constituent services and grassroots organizing.
This year's presidential campaign has been a grand experiment with new technology. Chris Hughes, the 24-year-old co-founder of Facebook, is serving as director of online organizing for Democrat Barack Obama. He developed My.BarackObama.com, which helped Obama raise more than 2 million donations of less than $200 each. Republican John McCain is no techie slouch himself. He held the first virtual fundraiser way back in 2000 and also has a Facebook page.
Facebook is just getting a toehold in Virginia politics. Jody Wagner, a Virginia Beach Democrat, set up a page recently to attract supporters in her bid for lieutenant governor. She has 238 so far, including one young activist who welcomed her to Facebook with the warning, "It can be pretty addicting."
One of the first legislators to use Facebook was Del. Chris Saxman, a young up-and-comer from Staunton. His site is less about politics than it is an homage to his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers and Metallica. But his 500 Facebook contacts include a bipartisan bevy of legislators and Republican activists from across the state. When Saxman spoke recently to a group of Virginia Beach Republicans, one man popped out of the audience and introduced himself as a Facebook friend.
While he sees its potential, Saxman understands that social networking has its limitations. Facebook has a cutesy format that can be an odd medium for political leaders. Is it appropriate to challenge a lieutenant governor to a "brain battle," for example? Should you "poke" a legislator, sort of an electronic "Hey!"?
"You have to be constantly on message" as an elected official, Saxman said, "and it's easy to get off message."
Back to the cowboy. I initially thought I had an e-stalker until I realized the guy with the Stetson was a younger version of John Taylor, head of the conservative advocacy group Tertium Quids. The 55-year-old has been experimenting with blogs, podcasts and other new media.
"Facebook was the one I was most incredulous about because I didn't want to have a bunch of 18-year-olds talking about their plans for the weekend," he said.
His official Facebook portrait - a 20-year-old photo-op from a tourist stop in Dodge City - was indicative of his skepticism. But Taylor said he's found new members and linked up with other conservative groups. And he even found himself talking to 18-year- old Georgians about their weekend plans, which consisted of watching Russian tanks roll through their town.
Although he's enjoyed his Facebook adventure, he's still not sure whether it's a fad or a vision of the future. For now, he's keeping the cowboy photo.
Christina Nuckols is an editorial writer for The Virginian- Pilot. Reach her at (804) 697-1562 or [email protected]
Originally published by BY CHRISTINA.
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