With the 2012 election finally over, it seems both inevitable and laughable that 2016 is already being mentioned, and not just by Jon Stewart. At the moment I am not at all interested in what lies ahead for 2016, but I do wonder how the nature of elections will change in the next 20, 30, and 40 years. As we have seen in the past two presidential elections, social media has become an increasingly important factor in voter engagement. While some politicians claim to send out their own tweets or Facebook messages (which can sometimes have detrimental effects, see: Anthony Weiner), the vast majority leave social media to staffers. Even when campaigns are seen as being active and successful online, it is unclear how much input candidates themselves have. For example, Barack Obama, whose campaign has used social media since 2008, rarely sends his own tweets, and there is little evidence he personally is social-media savvy.
Give it 15 or 20 years, however, and all of this will change. Today Facebook has over 800 million active monthly users, with over 50% of North America on the site, and 250 million photos are uploaded per day. With these statistics, it is almost impossible to think that when today’s 20-somethings move up in the world, they won’t have some sort of digital footprint of their past. As The Onion joked, “Every 2040 Presidential Candidate Already Unelectable Due to Facebook.” The question is, do we care? After all, the people running for future office may have salacious Facebook pictures in their past, but so will the majority of the individuals voting for them.
On a day-to-day basis we willingly share pictures, personal thoughts, and political opinions on sites that are increasingly open to the public. Twitter is often used as a public news source, and Facebook’s privacy settings default to “public” as an option on many things you post. Other networks such as LinkedIn take advantage of weak social ties, which are often more beneficial in areas such as job-hunting than strong ties. The ever-expanding world of social networking has changed what the internet is used for and greatly increased concerns over privacy and so called “big data”. With online shopping individuals are at risk of having their credit card information stolen, and with social media, individuals expose facts about themselves each day.
Many people do not know just how much can be found out about them by looking at their social media and other internet use. One way personal data is used is through micro-targeting by political campaigns, where voters are targeted based on data about them such as location, age, and gender. Add to that the fact that anyone from government agencies to small companies looking to hire you can quite easily access information such as your Facebook page, and it seems like Big Brother is a real, modern-day phenomenon. This could have major implications in the future, both for those running for office with a 20+ year digital history, and for policy makers who have to regulate what information can and cannot be shared online.
Tim Wu’s book, The Master Switch, details the rise and fall of dominant companies in the communications industry such as AT&T, and argues that the internet will become the next frontier in discussions over government regulation. Several internet companies are already showing similar characteristics to these communications giants. These include Facebook and Google, who now own Instagram and YouTube, respectively, and are thus taking control of more online properties. So, will we have to see a future in which the government controls how our private information and data is shared, or will we accept data shared online as inherently “public”? It’s hard to tell, given the vastness and global nature of the web, but it is sure to be an increasingly important debate.
References: Wu, T. (2011) The master switch: The rise and fall of information empires. New York: Knopf.
Top image from daniel_iversen on Flikr, licensed through Creative Commons. Bottom image author’s own.