Monday, November 03, 2008

Elections In The Digital Age

Now that the elections are finally behind us, at least for a week or two before someone announces intentions for the 2012 Presidential race, I though we could reflect on the impact that modern technology has played on the process and in some cases the results. The debates and rallies of political candidates are nothing new but the universal 24/7 access to what they say and do and promise and wear and look like is nothing short of extraordinary.

In the mid 1850s when Abraham Lincoln and Steven Douglas met to debate while seeking the US Senatorial seat for Illinois, relatively few were in attendance even though the two men agreed to travel to seven communities throughout Illinois. Most voters would hear about the debates via newspaper reports. The dynamics of “how” something was said was of course missing in these reports of “what” was said. Some would say this is better since a candidate’s good looks and/or idiosyncratic mannerisms did not affect the reader’s ability to critically examine the content. The quintessential example in the more recent past is of course Richard Nixon’s eschewing the use of make up at the Kennedy / Nixon televised debates of the 1960s.

Jumping to the recent Presidential election, the landscape has radically changed. For the last three years most every thing a candidate said, wore, ate, laughed at, looked at, traveled on or through has been shared with the world. Modern communications technology has been part and parcel of this election more than any in the past.

Time was when a candidate once, off the podium, could relax, perhaps even look a bit tired while back stage. Not now. Small format video cameras and recorders are on constant vigil to capture some tidbit of “news” to feed the voracious appetite of the 24/7 news cycle. And it is not just the professional journalists and news gathering organizations that chronicle the every move the of the candidates. Watching a political rally on television, executives from Sony or Cannon must feel great about the plethora of personal video cameras in the hands of the audience. The number of those cameras pales in comparison to the number of the ubiquitous camera phones on the belts and in the purses of most everyone in the audience. It is inconceivable that any action or inaction on the part of the candidates will escape world-wide distribution on YouTube.

The campaigns themselves used new technologies and online sites to full advantage. Over and above the and, any candidate worth his Blackberry has a MySpace page, a FaceBook page and email lists that go on forever. The use of targeted email has resulted in millions of dollars coming into the coffers of both major candidates.

As the new President moves from running for the office of President to running the office of the President it will be interesting to see how these same technologies will be used to maintain and expand communications with the electorate.

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