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Technology and Politics

Sharon Housley -- Unlike many tools used by politicians, social networking on the Internet is cheap and simple enough for the typical American teenager to operate and puts power into the hands of real Americans: the housewife in her living room, the student in his dorm.

Americans have always had a say in their government, at least in theory. Since the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, the United States of America has been the "land of opportunity," where even a lowly log-splitter, exercising sufficient brains and dedication, can raise himself to the highest executive office.

The U.S. Constitution safeguards the right to vote for every citizen over eighteen years of age, with few exceptions, ensuring a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Nevertheless, only about half of eligible voters historically vote for their president. Those who do make it to the polls are more educated than unschooled, more white than black, more men than women, more wealthy than poor, and more old than young.

This may all be about to change.

American politics has seen a few revolutions since The revolution that gave our nation its independence. To date, George Washington remains the only president to be voted into office unanimously, and since his time the politician is obliged to win the hearts and minds of the people. Thus, getting out one's message has been the quintessential challenge of the presidential candidate.

Initially, office-seekers relied on stump speeches and the press. Abraham Lincoln won over his supporters through a series of live debates. When radio came on the scene in the 1920s, contenders extended their reach into the very homes of Americans. Votership surged. The advent of television in the late 1940s transformed politics once again, directing the focus of the nation to good looks on camera and message control -- getting the perfect sound bite.

In September 1998 two California-based entrepreneurs, Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, became frustrated with the political mess they saw going on in D.C. Feeling very "American," they decided to do something about it and launched an online petition. Within a few days they had gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures.

What they found people needed was a sense of empowerment -- a way to have their voices heard. Blades and Boyd moved on to form the [] Political Action Committee, an online organization which now boasts over 3.3 million members. Almost accidentally, Blades and Boyd caught the attention of the media -- as well as campaign organizers, who sent out bulk emails and created flashy fundraising Web sites faster than you can say donation. But until 2003 internet-use was still a passive venture -- another mailing list, a new type of commercial.

Then in November of 2003 social networking was born on the worldwide Web. MySpace was followed by Facebook and Flickr in February of 2004, and YouTube joined the family in 2005. Suddenly it was possible to open a dialogue with the country without even picking up the phone. Unlike many tools used by politicians, social networking is cheap and simple enough for the typical American teenager to operate.

Perhaps best of all is the outreach. For the first time would-be candidates have tapped into a fresh demographic of voters, elusive up to this point -- the technology-savvy youth. Before now, politics was the game of Poli Sci grads and NPR junkies. On the Internet, power is in the hands of real Americans: the housewife in her living room, the student in his dorm. Rather than creating the perfect ten second sound bite, candidates must let go and have a real conversation. Interactive. Up close and personal.

Maybe as candidates are forced back to earth and voters gain a stake in the process, America will become the voice of the unschooled as well as the educated, the poor as well as the rich, men and women of all ages and every race. After all, isn't that what democracy is supposed to be?

Sharon Housley manages marketing for FeedForAll, software for creating, editing, publishing RSS feeds, and podcasts. In addition Sharon manages marketing for RecordForAll, audio recording and editing software.

© 2007 Sharon Housley

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