The Politicking of Friend Requesting

Politics used to be about who you know. Now it may be about how many you know. The emerging art of social networking friend requesting has become so prevalent in politics today that the GOP has recognized such sites as perhaps the biggest battleground lost in the 2008 Presidential Election. Their solution? More MySpace. More Facebook. More Twitter. Those are the three hottest GOP strategy topics over the last few months and, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, will remain so.

It’s not enough for politicians to maintain a social networking page through their strategists; they’re blogging and twittering at prolific rates. Some sites, like Topconservativesontwitter.org, are gauging popularity through the amount of friends and followers — from Ken Blackwell’s 5,000 Facebook friends to Chip Saltsman’s modest 662 Twitter fans. Now constituents can follow the technological misadventures of the latest crop of civic leaders looking to restore hipness to the Republican Party. The Tweet Congress blog shows members of Congress who already tapped in to Twitter, broadcasting politicians’ speaking engagements, who they’re rooting for in the big game and what they’re having for dinner.

And the phenomenon isn’t confined to party lines. In fact, Democrats have come away with a perceived edge over social networking influence: President Obama (as of last week) boasts more than 5 million Facebook friends and well over a half a million wall posts, while McCain’s Facebook page has failed to reach the 1 million friends plateau and lacks a wall for supporters to post on. As a result of McCain’s unpopularity on the Web, GOP strategy has shifted from pandering to the religious right on policy issues to appealing to a broader audience through the Web. But in politics does this friend requesting pissing contest really matter?

While premature to definitively say, it is possible that the amount of Facebook or MySpace friends serve as a modern day approval rating of sorts. Perhaps we’ll come to ‘de-friend’ a politician when we grow unhappy with his/her performance. There’s no magic formula for predicting the success and support of a politician but we can assume that one’s popularity on social networking sites is probably indicative of his/her overall approval. But that’s not to say Facebook and MySpace pages are rendering pollsters obsolete any time soon.

One proven perk, however, is the social networking sites’ ability to mobilize, particularly at a grassroots level. While “grassroots” traditionally has a leftist connotation, the Web provides equal access for candidates from all ends of the political spectrum. Social networking sites were crucial to Republican Ron Paul’s momentum during his surprising presidential run last year; Web popularity afforded President Obama to shatter campaign fundraising expectations, reaching nearly $750 million; it gave Democrat Dennis Kucinich a voice when mainstream media neglected his message; and, most recently, conservative Chuck DeVore turned his Twitter popularity into fundraising dollars.

Social networking popularity contests, as excessive and downright sickening as they are, seem to serve a purpose. For now, being the cool kid on the MySpace, the Facebook friend collector or the Twitter-happy politician is paying off.

Jason Turcotte

Jason Turcotte is a former CCT Graduate Student.