Tech

GOP Takes Over the Tubes

| Fri May 28, 2010 12:25 PM EDT

Back in the early aughts, liberals took an early lead in the blogosphere and never looked back. Conservatives were apparently too stodgy, too top-down oriented to make effective use of online technology. But Stephanie Mencimer reports that now the worm has turned:

When it comes to employing Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social-media sites, Republicans are whipping their opponents across the aisle, creating a growing tech gulf that threatens important implications for the 2010 mid-term elections.

Boehner, for instance, has 42,967 Twitter followers. And Pelosi? Well, she can’t have any followers, because she doesn’t tweet. Patrick Bell, the director of new media for House Republican Conference vice chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, keeps close tabs on what the Dems are up to. He says that as of January 2010, only 34 percent of Democratic House members were on Facebook and only 20 percent had hit Twitter. Meanwhile, since January 2009, the percentage of House Republicans using Facebook has jumped from 37 percent to 79 percent (as of early April). Sixty-four percent of these GOPers are on Twitter, compared with 28 percent in January last year. And 89 percent now have a YouTube channel, compared with 56 percent last year.

....[An] initiative to get more members virtually engaged appears to have succeeded wildly. In April, Rodgers launched a six-week contest organized like a "March Madness" ladder that was designed to nudge members of Congress into the Twittersphere. It seems to have succeeded wildly. This "new media challenge" is about to come to an end this week, as Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) and Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) duke it out for championship title as the House member with the most increased social media use. (The winner will be announced after the Memorial Day break — on Twitter, naturally.)

I'm going to take a guess here: online technology is fundamentally more attractive for insurgents than it is for the party in power. Partly this is because the party in power already has lots of other tools available for fundraising and communications. Partly it's because the party in power is more invested in leadership keeping control of its message. Partly it's because the party in power is just flat out busier with the actual work of governing. And partly it's because online chatter is riskier: if you're tweeting all day long you're bound to screw up sometime and say something stupid. That's more dangerous for the party in power than it is for the party out of power.

The political internet, at least in its current incarnation, is fundamentally crowd-based. Anyone can jump in, nobody's in control, and it's an ideal medium for people who are pissed off at the establishment (including their own establishment) and are looking for a way to break through. In other words: people who are out of power. In the early Bush era, this was liberals, and the blogosphere was the cutting edge of online activism. So liberals took over the blogosphere and made it into a liberal duck pond. Today it's conservatives, and social media is the cutting edge of online activism. So it's not surprising that conservatives are doing the same. Nancy Pelosi probably figures she has better things to do.

That's my guess, anyway. For what it's worth, though, I don't expect this state of affairs to last much longer. The internet is very quickly outgrowing its adolescence, and before long it's not going to be any more friendly to insurgents than 30-second radio spots or mass fundraising appeals. Enjoy it while you can.