September 14, 2004

If Friendsters Were Voters … Democrats dream of an online gold mine

By Laila Weir

In a hard-fought presidential campaign season, Democrats have been early adopters of innovative online campaigning methods — from MoveOn’s mass mobilizations to Howard Dean’s lucrative Internet funding appeals during the primaries.

The trend continues with the emergence of political profiles on social networking websites like Friendster and Orkut.

These sites allow their mostly young users to create free profiles — complete with photos and factoids — that are linked to their friends’ profiles, forming communities of online peers that increase exponentially with each degree of separation. Friendster alone has 9 million registered users.

John Kerry, John Edwards, Dean and Wesley Clark all maintained social-networking website profiles during the Democratic primaries, and the Kerry campaign still runs an official profile on Friendster and benefits from a popular profile on Orkut.

But except for the occasional unofficial profile, George Bush is largely absent from the online social networking circuit, and it could cost him outreach to notoriously hard-to-reach young voters.

Internet access

Both the Bush and Kerry campaigns maintain websites enabling visitors to register to vote, get contacts for local media, recruit friends to join the campaign and contact undecided voters.

Volunteers are responding in droves.

As of mid-August, 82,000 volunteers had been recruited by friends through the Bush campaign’s website, said Michael Turk, the president’s e-campaign director.

He also said that supporters used the website to send 325,395 letters to newspapers, and have donated $8.7 million online.

The Kerry campaign has done even better: Almost 500,000 volunteers have signed up online and the campaign raised more than $81 million online during the primary cycle, according to a staff member.

What’s more, the Democrat’s campaign has made a specific effort to cultivate the grassroots potential of social networking websites, with their largely youthful user groups.

Most of Friendster’s users are in their twenties, said company spokeswoman Lisa Kopp, and the average user spends upwards of an hour on the site each day.

“These young people aren’t watching TV, but they’re online,” she said.

Nationally, a Nielsen Media Research survey last year showed that young men are watching 12 percent less prime-time network television than in the past.

But 78 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds use the Internet, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Ethan Rapp, a partner at the advertising consultancy Marketing Evolution, notes an “inverse relationship” between TV and Internet usage, which may affect how campaigns spend their promotional money.

“People who are more likely to be light TV users are also more likely to be the heavier Internet users,” he said. “As you begin to find diminishing returns in one medium, if you switch dollars to another medium you may be able to take advantage of that effect.”

Influencing friends

Friendster does not collect information on whether or how customers vote, and the question remains as to whether these voters are worth pursuing.

But some experts say the potential rewards are worth the effort.

Young people consistently vote less than other age groups, and are less set in their political views, making them more open to campaign messages, said Jon Krosnick, a professor of communications, political science and psychology at Stanford University.

And on social-networking websites, a single message can go a long way.

Kerry’s profiles link to more than 4,000 users on Friendster, and 1,000 on Orkut.

On Friendster alone, through each user’s own personal network, this currently adds up to 193,350 second-degree and 2,773,341 third-degree “friends.” Each is a potential recipient of Kerry campaign messages.

According to Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University, Friendster users are likely to be “influentials” — individuals that marketers consider leaders in establishing community trends and opinions.

“The people who are getting involved through Friendster, or through a campaign website, tend to be the people who are reaching everybody else,” she said. “If you can reach influentials, you can reach everyone else.”

In email interviews with Newsdesk.org, some of the people linked to Kerry on Friendster said they were definitely planning to vote for him, while others said they probably would.

All who responded seemed to have a high level of political knowledge and interest — key indicators, said Darr, of influential status.

One of Kerry’s Friendster supporters is Amanda Sutton, a 26-year-old book publicist in Albuquerque, NM.

Asked if she felt Kerry’s profile could win support for his campaign, Sutton wrote, “Friendster seems to be a forum for young, hip individuals — it can never hurt to have them on your side. Public exposure is essential, and nontraditional avenues such as Friendster might make some difference.”

Sutton volunteers with the Kerry campaign, and said she hopes that by linking her own profile to Kerry’s, she can drive more traffic to his site.

“I was hoping to encourage friends and other interested parties checking out my page to read about him and possibly vote for him,” she noted.

The Kerry campaign is also getting unofficial support from Voter X, an online service started by the liberal advocacy group Music for America, and Votester.org, a San Francisco-based website that enables members to “adopt” and recruit their friends in swing states.

Voter X is trying to imitate commercial social-networking sites’ viral marketing model to organize young people into “voting blocs.”

“Think Friendster and Myspace plus the passion you have to change things,” the site reads.

Members of the group send messages to 5, 10 or more of their friends, encouraging them, in turn, to sign up, commit to vote and try to enlist even more people.

Phony pages

According to Turk, the Bush campaign has not bought into the Friendster promise, and is focusing instead on organizing its own social networking chains.

This includes website outreach, as well as offline “Parties for the President” — the Kerry campaign has a similar program — in which supporters hold campaign events for family and friends.

At least one Bush volunteer took Friendster matters into his own hands, signing people up to a campaign newsletter via an unofficial Bush profile on Friendster earlier this year.

But since the campaign has not officially registered with Friendster, the company has not removed any fake Bush profiles, some mocking him, and opposing his presidency.

Of 148 Bush profiles recently turned up by a search of the website, just one appeared to be supportive.

But Turk said the critical and phony profiles do not concern him.

“People who have an interest in satiric spoofs are going to find an outlet,” he said.

Whether social networking sites will deliver enough voters or volunteers to fall into the same category of importance as other Internet campaign tools remains to be seen.

But it is clear that such websites have taken Kerry into a corner of cyberspace far removed from the staid Senate floor, and the candidate’s profiles reflect a resolute, if sometimes awkward, awareness of this.

Both his Friendster and Orkut profiles include photos of him windsurfing, and begin with the same odd attempt to play to a breezy Internet audience.

“I love Hostess chocolate cupcakes, although Teresa tries to limit them,” they read.

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