Virtually all the participation I had with presidential elections was through television until 2008, which now seems like a flash point when reflecting on technology's influence on presidential elections. I wasn't on Facebook at the time, but it was the first instance in which I spent a lot of time following the election through blogs, which were another type of social media, since so much writing seemed to be a reaction to something that someone else had written. But even then, as the results were coming in, my friends and I were gathered around the television, waiting for a station to call a winner.
This year's election was much different for me. I was working here at the Reader office, and I was consuming all sorts of media as the results were coming in. I was shifting back and forth between the Reader's Twitter feed, my Facebook feed, a TV we had in the office, and the dispatches of Reader writers who were out in the field reporting on the election. I had four different sources of information, and the amount and range of data within those four sources is immeasurable—I can't possibly begin to comprehend how much more information I was consuming.
Judging by all the media outlets I was exposed to, one might think that I was more informed and aware of the national temperature than most people. And for most of the night, this was how I felt. But at around 1 AM central time, I realized just how wrong I was. On my Facebook feed, a friend of mine posted the following:
I'm embarrassed at my peers who immediately after the announcement came online to declare their disapproval. As Americans we need to stand behind our leaders. Whether or not you agree with his policies Obama has spent the last four years and will spend the next four dedicating his life to moving this great country forward. That in and of itself deserves respect. I understand that everyone has the right to speak their minds on public forums such as this but good God people, keep it to yourself.
What was weird to me wasn't the reaction, but that this person was presumably only referring to the information he was receiving through Facebook, and the sentiments and politics that were being filtered to him were totally different than what I was receiving. I would have thought that I would be getting more information and a wider perspective than he was, but his post made me unsure of that.
A part of Barack Obama's success has been due to his social media presence. Indeed, Obama was much better than Romney, McCain, or Hillary Rodham Clinton at learning how to navigate his campaign through Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. And the takeaway seemed to be that this made Obama more in touch and open-minded than the other candidates. I might be taking a leap in logic here, but what it made me think is that using social media also means that you're more aware and by proxy able to reach more people. But my friend's Facebook comment started to make me think that the opposite was true: that social media only constricts your world and reaffirms your beliefs. In a way, a world with social media is actually more isolating and restrictive than one without it.
During the first debate, I was watching TV while also checking my Facebook and Twitter feeds on my phone. First of all, the fact that I couldn't watch the debates without checking other people's commentary is sad. But what was even more depressing is what people were saying—mostly a series of dumb jokes and reactionary didacticism that was less commentary and more noise. Juxtaposed against the theatrical and phony charade that is the debates, it all seemed extraordinarily unreal. And substantively, it felt hollow, an empty echo chamber of characterless posturing and meme auditioning, building personal brands instead of meaningfully contributing to a larger conversation.
When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, I was optimistic for a candidate who was going to be a little different than the politicians that preceded him and surrounded him, someone who was more attuned to the progressive impulses of his and subsequent generations. And the way he interacted with social media was symbolic of that. But now I'm ambivalent. Being in touch with social media no longer persuades me of a candidate's, or anyone else's, merit. Rather, it just seems like a rapidly deteriorating inevitability, a stream of phony, self-serving data that says nothing at all.