Can Pols Be Your Online Friends?
March 23, 2007 - I made a strange new friend today on MySpace. Her name is Hillary Clinton. Frankly, we don't have a lot in common. For one thing, she's 59. I'm 24. My latest blog entry is about my band's new CD. Hers—originally posted on her other blog a month ago—goes on and on about how "the miracle of technology" allows her to "talk WITH you, not just at you." I list dozens of interests, including blues singer Bukka White, Jean-Luc Godard's "Masculin, féminin" and, um, refried beans (don't ask). She lists none. My gallery features photographs of me playing guitar, hiking in China, dancing at a party and wearing regrettably trendy sunglasses. Hillary's boasts three shots of her resting her chin on her knuckles, à la "The Thinker," and gazing into the distance. Two of them are actually the same image.
Apparently, this is the future of presidential campaigning in America—at least until a better future comes along. On Monday, MySpace launched what it's calling the Impact Channel: a one-stop shop for candidate profiles that also houses a voter-registration tool and public-service job listings (among other content aimed at inspiring, you know, civic engagement). It arrived, in true Web 2.0 fashion, with a heavy dose of hype. "As the country's most trafficked Web site, MySpace will play a powerful role in the upcoming election," said CEO Chris DeWolfe. "Our digital candidate banners will be the yard signs of the 21st Century and our political viral videos and vlogs are the campaign ads of the future." (Sadly, DeWolfe made no mention of robot maids or rocket boots.) The media took the bait, and by midday Friday a Google News search for "MySpace Impact Channel" was turning up more than 200 results. Not that NEWSWEEK was exempt. My editor, in fact, e-mailed me moments after the site debuted. "There might be a cool essay to be done about the new Myspace Impact Channel," he wrote. "Do any of the candidates speak the language of MySpace?" Being the magazine's token "young person," I dutifully agreed to investigate.
Initially, what I found on MySpace did not make much of a—brace yourselves—impact. Twelve candidates have set up profile pages: Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, Duncan Hunter, Dennis Kucinich, John McCain, Barack Obama, Ron Paul, Bill Richardson and Mitt Romney. A few are new, but most have merely moved their pre-existing profiles to the Impact Channel homepage. The hope, as MySpace cofounder Tom Anderson has said, is that “a MySpace profile could excite [young people's] interest in ways they are used to. In the same way they learn about their friends, they could learn about a candidate.” Perhaps—provided they typically befriend middle-aged egomaniacs whose every utterance is edited by a squadron of costly consultants. Only they don't. Ever. It's far more common on MySpace to, say, link up with a pneumatic blonde named Candii after she posts subliterate innuendo on your comments board, only to discover months later that she's actually a porn star. (Not that I would know.) Which is why at first glance these presidential MySpace pages seem so boring: the same "uplifting" biographies, the same policy platitudes, the same red-white-and-blue aesthetic. Each candidate's Internet team is young and smart enough to know there's nothing more painful than watching old people act "hip." Unfortunately, that means no pictures of Joe Biden in a bikini.
Thing is, there's a lot of space between Candii and Candidate 1.0, and after a few clicks it becomes clear that some of these campaigns get it—and some of them don't. The worst of the worst: Rudy Giuliani. I visited Giuliani's page hoping to hear about his favorite operas and browse happy photos from the pre-comb-over days. Alas, Giuliani granted neither of my wishes; in fact, I couldn't see his profile at all. "This profile is set to private," read a message at the top of the screen. "This user must add you as a friend to see his/her profile." Restricting your site to pre-approved pals totally jibes with Giuliani's tyrannical reputation. But it sort of defeats the purpose of setting up a MySpace page in the first place: attracting new supporters. Of all the official profiles I was actually allowed to access, Bill Richardson's was the lamest: educational info, the official bio, a single photograph and nothing else. And Hillary's profile was almost as bad, borrowing all of its (meager) content from her official Web site and referring to the candidate exclusively in the third person—decisions that shatter any illusion of personal involvement.
With the bar set so low, any adaptation to the medium, however cautious, was enough to catapult a candidate into the second tier. Chris Dodd updates his iPod playlist (CSNY, Gnarls Barkley) and allows supporters to suggest songs or record audio testimonials. An Eventful.com widget on Rep. Ron Paul's page encourages visitors to "demand" that the Texas Republican schedule an event in their city, then displays how many requests he's received by region. John McCain names "Viva Zapata" as his favorite movie and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" as his favorite book. And Barack Obama carves out space on his homepage for buddies whose profile pictures show them in Obama gear. Most second-tier MySpace candidates also manage to pack their pages with music, photos, videos (Biden on Leno, for example), fund-raising widgets, cut-and-paste banners and links to other Web 2.0 hotspots like Facebook and YouTube. The lingua franca of MySpace is authenticity—or the appearance thereof. These profiles aren't convincingly authentic—after all, Duncan Hunter chose "God Bless the U.S.A." as his theme song (indicating that he's either a politician, or insane). But they do possess a peculiar charm. Simply put, it's flattering when a possible president comes to your turf and tries to connect. Even if he is old.
Only three campaigns, however, created profiles for their candidates that fit seamlessly (yet tastefully) into the sloppy, confessional world of MySpace: John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich and Mitt Romney. All three address visitors in the first person. All three boast dozens of personal photographs, many of them surprisingly candid (a disheveled Edwards cuddling with daughter Cate; Romney and wife Ann on what looks like an awkward early date; Kucinich in an oversized T shirt, grinning goofily at the camera). Both Kucinich and Romney recorded video greetings; both Edwards and Romney posted songs without "God" or "U.S.A." in the title (Edwards: the Foo Fighters' "Times Like These"; Romney: Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation"). And each campaign came up with smart signature features. For Edwards, it’s "John's Pals," a gallery of his "amazing MySpace friends who have put a picture of the two of us as their default pic." "Just message me the links," he writes, "and I'll add you." Romney convinced three of his sons, Tagg, Josh and Craig, to launch their own profiles—ostensibly so he could link to them from his homepage, a move that emphasizes his "family values" and makes him seem like an actual MySpace user (with real-life friends!). Finally, there's Kucinich. In the upper-left-hand corner of his page is a brief recording of the candidate explaining how to say his name. "Now, I know that some people have trouble pronouncing it," he says. "I want to assure people that it took me years to learn."
Sounds dorky? It is. So dorky, in fact, that it's kind of endearing. Who knows if MySpace will ever propel anyone to the presidency? But if the site can force power-hungry politicians to act like human beings every once in awhile, that's impact enough for me.