In 2008, it doesn’t matter who you’d want to have a beer with. The question today is which candidate do you want to be your Facebook friend?
Only a year ago, Facebook was as collegiate a phenomenon as cram sessions and bong hits. Now it’s become a major social-networking tool across the board—partly because it’s better designed than the likes of Friendster and MySpace, and partly because its users can easily modify their home pages to add “applications” that reflect their interests and personalities. The site currently claims over 57 million members worldwide, and says it adds a quarter-million more every day. Naturally, presidential candidates have gotten caught up in Facebook mania, and their profile pages say a lot about the kind of public image they’re trying to project.
Of the presidential candidates on Facebook, Barack Obama (note: you must be registered on Facebook to view the candidates’ pages) has made the biggest splash: His page currently lists over 167,000 supporters, and there’s even an “Obama” application that can put an Obama news-feed on users’ home pages. His response to the boilerplate Facebook listing for “interests” is “basketball, writing, loafing w/ kids”; the “loafing” is enough of an Obama-ish writerly touch that it suggests he filled out the form himself. His sole favorite TV show is “SportsCenter” (he’s a regular guy!), although his favorite books--Moby Dick, Self-Reliance, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead--all bespeak a religious seriousness. And his favorite quote is “The Arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Obama attributes it simply to “(MLK),” which is both Facebook-y shorthand and incorrect: the line, quoted frequently by Martin Luther King, Jr., is actually from 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Parker.
Hillary Clinton has only about a third as many Facebook supporters as Obama, and her campaign doesn’t seem to have put any effort into her page. Her Flickr and YouTube feeds appear as applications, but there’s zero Facebook-specific content--no favorite books, no quotes, no personality. Even her “About Me” section is simply the first paragraph of the dry-toast bio at her campaign website, rewritten from third person to first person, including a reference to her “classic suburban childhood” and the unhelpful phrase “helped transform” twice in the same sentence. It’s the sort of profile you see from ordinary users who are required to register with Facebook for work but never bother logging in.
The Democratic underdogs are more enthusiastic on their Facebook pages. In a nicely communitarian touch, Joe Biden’s page currently features a picture of himself with his arms around two collegiate-looking guys holding an “I’m a Health Care Voter” sign. It also includes favorite quotes from a JFK speech (predictable) and a Seamus Heaney poem (which has a little more literary heft), and a pair of left-field choices for favorite books: American Gospel, by Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, and Irish America, presumably the Maureen Dezell book. If the old standard for attracting voters was to be the candidate everyone wanted to have a beer with, Biden is the one you’d want to be Facebook friends with. John Edwards has incorporated a Twitter feed into his page for constant updates on what he’s up to--but as of December 4, it hasn’t been updated in almost three weeks. (“On my way to Finley hospital in Dubuque, Iowa...”) And, although Edwards takes a stab at the telegraphic writing style Facebook users favor, he hasn’t quite mastered it: “As a Senator, I stood up for you. Currently fighting poverty. Go Tar Heels!”
Dennis Kucinich’s page, likewise, follows the model of a typical user’s, but suggests that he isn’t the clearest communicator: he lists his interests as “walking, reading, listening, gardening, playing with my dogs, Elizabeth, politics, people, policies of healthcare for all, Elizabeth, peace, veganism, freedom.” (Yes, his wife shows up on the list twice.) And his favorite-movie listing abruptly veers into odd self-promotion: “Right now: Sicko by Michael Moore, who has won the health care debate by supporting my bill.” His page also includes the “Graffiti” draw-with-your-mouse application, eliciting handwritten messages like “HR 808 - best bill EVER. Kucinich is my homeboy.”
Whatever the Democrats’ awkwardness, the Republican candidates still don’t fare nearly as well on Facebook. Mitt Romney’s photo depicts him looking rugged in front of an out-of-focus fern, but his interests derail almost as rapidly as Kucinich’s into a platform statment: “Besides my family, I have great interest in strengthening this country and our economy. Fixing our failing schools so we can better compete with emerging Asia and making health care affordable through free market reforms. And, most importantly, winning the war against the jihadists to ensure that Americans are kept safe.” There definitely appear to have been some schools that need fixing in Romney’s past--it’s not often one encounters a sentence fragment that’s also a run-on.
All the candidates have gussied up their pages with at least a couple of extra applications, that try to say a bit about the way they’re presenting themselves. Romney, in an attempt to seem like more of an easygoing country-music sort of fellow, has adopted the iLike application for listing his favorite musicians—Toby Keith, George Strait, the Eagles. (“Mitt has no dedications yet. Dedicate a song to Mitt!”) Rudy Giuliani, who would like people to think of him as more experienced in foreign policy than his career would suggest, includes the “Cities I’ve Visited” application; not only has he “traveled to 213 cities in 35 countries,” but some poor intern probably had to input all of them. Ron Paul, who’s building part of his campaign on his televised charisma, has set up a “Ron Paul TV” application—”Click Me to Play!”—and his “information” listing links to five other Paul sites. But his page doesn’t actually say anything about his anti-war, libertarian stance; the only “cause” it lists is “Ron Paul 2008 - Hope for America” (“Ron raised $345,” it non-specifically chirps), and the only biographical nugget it offers is that he’s delivered more than 4,000 babies.
Facebook’s conversational design and constant updates are meant to let its users feel more closely connected; you befriend other users not because you want to admire them from a distance, but because you want to interact with them and keep abreast of what they’re up to. The “wall” function lets other users leave messages on Facebook profiles, and even the least engaging candidate profiles include impassioned one-to-one letters (“Dear Fred, I met you in person last Saturday... you are one of the most humble men I have ever met...”) and shout-outs (“HILLARY U ARE THE NEXT PERSIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES LOVE YA MUCH”). Still, it’s hard to miss the particular kinds of interaction with the political process the candidates are offering. For Obama and Paul, it’s becoming part of the crew supporting a charismatic leader; for Edwards, it’s getting in on the action; for Romney and Kucinich, it’s collective struggle against the forces of evil; for Clinton, it’s sustaining a brand name that doesn’t care who’s buying it as long as somebody is.
Some of the connections Facebook catalyzes, though, aren’t necessarily the kind candidates find helpful. The standard profile template includes a “Looking For” line, which is meant to advertise users’ romantic availability; both Mike Huckabee and Dennis Kucinich, it turns out, are looking for “Friendship.” And Romney, Paul, Huckabee and Fred Thompson all use the “Introduce Me” application, which allows users to suggest friends for them, along with a reason; one of the options it offers is that “they would make a good couple.” And perhaps they would--but maybe drawing a line somewhere around there would be prudent.