Social networking sites: The next big thing in politics

The influence of social-networking sites on political campaigns is growing, experts say.

Social networking Web sites such as MySpace and YouTube are already having a major impact on the way political campaigns are run, but a group of social-network experts had a hard time predicting Friday just what applications will best connect with voters in future elections.

All of the creators of social-network sites speaking at a conference on "person-to-person-to-person" networking and its effect on campaigns seemed to agree that politicians need to pay attention to "consumer-created media," a term that some participants objected to.

The rise of MySpace, Facebook and other social-networking sites are making the controlled, broadcast-style way of distributing political information obsolete, said Henry Copeland, president and founder of Blogads, an advertising service for blogs. "The people we're dealing with today are no longer 'consumers,' they're participants," Copeland said at the conference, hosted by the George Washington University Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.

Politicians who ignore the impact of blogs and other social-networking sites will miss a huge number of potential voters, said Tom Gerace, founder and chief executive officer of Gather.com, which he billed as MySpace for grown-ups. MySpace, which boasts 108 million profiles created by members, already reaches more people each day than CNN.com or NYTimes.com, he said.

"If you just play in the traditional media, you're missing most of your audience today -- not 10 years down the road, but today," Gerace said.

MySpace has more than 7,400 discussion groups related to politics. Candidates such as former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark, Nevada Democratic senatorial candidate Jack Carter and Arizona Republican Senator John McCain either have created their own pages or have supporter-created pages there.

MySpace also has user groups devoted to the "truth" about the U.S. government's involvement in the 9/11 attacks, the legalization of marijuana and the claim that Republicans are better in bed.

Smart politicians will harness the power of social-networking sites, especially the ability to run videos within them, said Jeff Berman, senior vice president for public affairs at MySpace. Politicians are just beginning to tap into the potential of social-networking sites, he said.

For example, when a popular music group debuts a new song on MySpace, it could raise awareness for a political campaign just by having links to its pages on its MySpace site, he said.

"It just makes sense [for politicians] to be there," he said. "This is influencer marketing."

Smart politicians should also begin to realize that citizens journalists armed with video cameras or a blog platform are beginning to show up everywhere, speakers said. In August, Senator George Allen, a Virginia Republican in a tough campaign for re-election, was caught on video calling an Indian-American man working for his opponent "macaca." Macaca is a species of monkey, but Allen said he didn't know that.

But asked about the future impact of social-networking sites on campaigns, conference participants hesitated to predict. "Anybody who tells you they know where this space is heading right now is lying," said John de Tar, co-founder of HotSoup.com.

One audience member questioned if the increasing influence of social-networking sites was a positive development in a world where 9/11 conspiracy discussion groups get the same play as serious candidates. There's "mass production of nonsense in politics," the man said.

But Chuck deFeo, general manager of Townhall.com, disagreed. "It's healthy for democracy for more voices to be heard," he said. "People get more involved in politics."

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