John Edwards: Running for President on the Internet
John Edwards is currently on 23 social networks, including Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr (Vargas). Edwards’s Facebook profile cites his interests as fighting poverty and raising the minimum wage, and his favorite song as Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” (John Edwards). Users are allowed to write on his “wall,” a type of message board, and comment or ask questions. The most recent posters asked the candidate to come play basketball with them and scolded him for his recent “$400 haircut” (John Edwards). Facebook allows Edwards to have an image with young people, especially college students. It provides an opportunity for students to relate to the candidate. By listing his favorite music, television shows, etc. he shows that he is a normal person like the rest of us. He does not just live and breathe politics every moment. Facebook is just one example of Edwards’s use of online technology. Online strategists say he has taken the internet presence one step further and explored the unknown possibilities and also the potential pitfalls (Vargas). John Edwards even announced his bid for the presidency on YouTube (Balz). Voters could watch his announcement seconds after it happened and access it easily. They did not have to wait for the local news or the newspaper article. Edwards had no prepared text and spoke from talking points that had no “guaranteed applause lines” and very few “perfect sound-bites” (Balz). He also did something completely untraditional. He took questions from reporters and voters (Balz). Candidates rarely allow for questions or comments right away because they do not want to skew their message at all or allow others to change the meaning of what was said (Balz).
Why is John Edwards heading to the Internet to reach voters? Joe Trippi, a political consultant and former manager of Howard Dean’s online campaign, explains, “When the industrial revolution came, candidates learned real fast that they had to go stand at the factory gate. Why? Because at 5 o’clock when that whistle blew, that’s where the workers would be. You’re campaigning where the community is” (Pickler). Many more Americans, especially young people, are spending a lot of their leisure time online. They also use the Internet to find their information and research political issues. As mentioned, Edwards is also visible on other social networks such as MySpace, De.icio.us, 43 Things, etc. (Pickler). The candidate is seeking out potential voters where he knows they are already active. Mathew Gross, Edwards’s Online Communications Senior Advisor, says that this works because the voters “don’t have to search for information about you. They’ve already seen you on YouTube or MySpace. They’ve found you through their preferred medium” (Pickler).
An example of John Edwards trying new methods on the Internet and taking chances is his use of Second Life. The online community is a simulated town where users have avatars and can communicate and function as they would in a physical society. Edwards is the first presidential candidate to set up a campaign headquarters in Second Life (O’Hear). The headquarters are run by volunteer Jerimme Richir, whose avatar goes by the name “Jose Rote” (O’Hear). Richir explains that Second Life is important to campaigns because it gives potential voters like soldiers in Iraq, disenfranchised citizens in Puerto Rico, business people abroad, rural families, etc. an ability to participate on the same footing (O’Hear). Americans who may not have other forms of access to hearing a candidate speak or seeing a candidate now have the ability to become politically involved in a virtual community. Richir also explains that Second Life is influential because its users are unique and are first adopters of this technology (O’Hear). They are technology-savvy and may be more likely to be politically active. The headquarters resemble an old-fashioned campaign in a new setting (Pickler). The boardwalk features billboards that describe issues like the Iraq war and health care (Pickler). Users can also get free “Edwards for President” t-shirts (Pickler). The candidate is reaching out to the users and attempting to involve them in his campaign. By participating in Second Life, Edwards is showing that he is not afraid to try new methods and is willing to reach Americans in whatever ways he can find.
Using participatory media is a new trend and comes with challenges. John Edwards has already faced a few obstacles as a result of his online technology efforts. His Second Life headquarters were vandalized on February 26 by a group of Republican users wearing “Bush ‘08” tags (Beyerstein). The group put up Marxist/Leninist posters, threw feces, and photoshopped a picture of Edwards in blackface (Beyerstein). This is proof that using online technology opens up new challenges because it gives control to the users. The candidates can contribute information and interact in these communities, but they have no control. They cannot stop these users from vandalizing the headquarters. By participating in such communities as Second Life, Edwards makes his campaign much more vulnerable.
The candidate has also faced problems with his blogging efforts. The campaign hired two liberal feminist bloggers, Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, to write for the blog on his website (Broder). People became outraged when they researched the bloggers and found they had written what was perceived as offensive material on their previous perosnal blogs (Broder). Users were angry and many called for Edwards to fire the bloggers (Broder). When employing writers to provide commentary on the campaign and communicate with users, it is inevitable these bloggers will have some type of a history with writing and revealing their personal opinions. Edwards opted not to fire the bloggers, but did express his own distaste with their past blog writings and admitted he was equally offended (Broder). The more a candidate makes a prominent presence in the online community, the more at risk they are for negative attention and reactions. John Edwards and other candidates will encounter similar problems to this blogging incident because they are attempting to integrate the passionate, provocative, and freewheeling political discourse that is abundant on the Internet into a more strict and controlled form of traditional campaigning (Broder). A similar example is a video made on YouTube by a user. The video featured John Edwards having his hair done to the tune of "I Feel Pretty" (RogerrmJet). Someone took the same medium Edwards uses to promote his message and used it to make fun of the candidate and publicly embarrass him.
Edwards encountered another problem after the announcement that his wife’s, cancer had returned. The official campaign website invited users to send a sympathy note to Elizabeth Edwards (Akers). After users sent their messages, they were then presented with a solicitation for a campaign donation (Akers). The e-mail addresses used to send the sympathy notes were then also used to e-mail donation solicitations (Akers). Users were angry they were asked for money in that context and made it known by voicing their outrage and condemning the solicitations. Consequently, Edwards has enjoyed a large increase in donations since the disclosure of Elizabeth Edwards’s cancer (Akers). Whether the solicitations after the sympathy notes have anything to do with it is difficult to determine. But this problem is a reminder that the bottom line here is that this is a presidential candidate who wants to win the presidency of the United States. He needs votes and he needs money. Edwards is using all the online tools available to help meet that need.
While other presidential candidates are also online and using similar participatory tools, Edwards has shown he is a leader in this area. Out of all the candidates, he has the most dynamic web presence (Vargas). Perhaps one of the most attractive aspects of his online efforts is that it seems like he is making an honest attempt to relate to us and to come to us where we are. Edwards recognizes the role MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, etc. play in many Americans’ lives. His use of these tools reflect a respect for participatory media and the way it allows more Americans to participate in our democracy. Ruby Sinreich, an online consultant, explains that
What you have to remember is that signing up for these social networking sites is free, and it shows that he’s open to new ideas and open to the openness of the Internet. Look, voters are swayed by the people they know. That’s not new. That’s not about technology. But what we have now is a new technology that is all about building relationships (Vargas).
By using these online tools, Edwards opens himself and his campaign to the possibility of relationships with voters. Whether it is writing on a voter’s Facebook wall or becoming his or her MySpace friend, the candidate is showing that you are just as important as the next voter. Every vote and every opinion counts in this model and Edwards wants to hear from all his potential voters. The true test will be in the primary season and whether John Edwards’s online campaigning made a difference. Regardless of the results, John Edwards’s use of participatory media has changed the campaign landscape and will set the example for future elections.
Balz, Dan. "Edwards Turns to Non-Traditional Campaign Model." Washington Post 28 Dec. 2006. 19 Apr. 2007
Beyerstein, Lindsay. "John Edwards' "Second Life" Headquarters Defaced." AlterNet 2 Mar. 2007. 18 Apr. 2007
Broder, John M., and Sarah Wheaton. "Edwards Learns Campaign Blogs Can Cut 2 Ways." The New York Times 9 Feb. 2007. 18 Apr. 2007
Edwards, John. Interview with Robert Scoble. Scoble Show. 17 Apr. 2007
"John Edwards." Facebook. 23 Apr. 2007
O'Hear, Steve. "John Edwards' Campaign Enters Second Life." The Social Web I ZDNet.Com. 14 Feb. 2007. 19 Apr. 2007
Pickler, Nedra. "Candidates Seek Votes in Cyberspace." Washington Post 19 Apr. 2007. 22 Apr. 2007
Rogerrmjet. "John Edwards Feeling Pretty." YouTube. 23 Apr. 2007
Vargas, Jose Antonio. "Grass Roots Planted in Cyberspace." Washington Post 30 Mar. 2007. 17 Apr. 2007