I came across an article today that was very revealing not only of the power of contemporary social media, but its nature, which also put me in mind of some of the more abstract political philosophy that I’d read over the last year or so. In particular, I’m thinking of Paul Virilio, because it has to do with the speed of social media processes.
Daniel Kreiss teaches at the Media and Journalism School at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He got several high-ranking people in the Obama 2012 and Romney 2012 campaigns to talk to him in obsessive detail about the social media strategies, organizations, and noteworthy events of the most expensive political campaign in the history of modern democracy. The paper was written like a bog-standard social science chunk of research academia: intro, lit review, methods and sources, findings, analysis. The content is fascinating.
What stands out about the paper is how brilliantly it illustrates the speed of Twitter as a medium. That speed affects the medium’s strong limits and incredible potentials. There are two examples.
|All the preparation in the world can't prepare you|
to react with the speed you need to live.
1. Connectivity. Before the first Romney-Obama debate, the Republican team had a pile of infographics and tweetable material prepared to launch with every mention of a concrete Romney policy. The Mitt Romney twitter feed broadcast the accounts of influential campaign activists who’d be retweeting prepared material, like those infographics, before the debate, and prepared their dedicated followers to spread the Romney gospel far and wide.
The result was so many retweets of pre-approved Romney material during the debate that its sheer volume made blog-based and traditional journalists declare (with a little help from Obama's own lacklustre performance on the night) Romney the winner. It was a vision that looked organic, but was really deeply prepared.
But while the Romney team’s preparation was a virtue, it was also a terrible vulnerability. The Republicans could prepare for an event that they knew was a long time coming and seed the online audience, essentially, with plants whose volume would manipulate the wider perception of what public opinion was. They understood the dense connectivity of online media.
2. Spontaneity and autonomy. The Romney team didn’t understand the biggest problems of online media’s radically compressed time scale compared to other media. Kreiss describes a key difference between online and traditional media as their cycles of dominance. Online media moves immensely fast. The equivalent of dominating the 24-hour cable news cycle for an entire day is to be among the top trenders for one to two hours. Kreiss doesn’t mention this, but I'd say the older-media equivalent would be holding the front pages of a nation’s newspapers for about a week.
Virilio associates the human capacity to control a political movement – whether in information as I’m discussing now, or in the movement of people and soldiers – with humanity’s ability to handle its speed. A process that unfolds over weeks allows more control, and therefore freedom, than a process that unfolds and finishes before you even know it’s started. If you can move yourself with the movement, then you can maintain control. If the movement overtakes you, you’re sunk.
|This is apparently a photo of Mitt Romney dancing to|
"Gangnam Style." It is also evidence that typical
American Republicans do not understand the finer
details of popular culture, whether those details are
transformative or trivial.
What sunk Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, at least insofar as it moved through online media and the perceptions such media affected, was that it couldn’t keep up. The Romney campaign could prepare a great deal of pre-approved material in advance. But they were so paranoid about maintaining total control of messaging and public content* that anything needed to be approved by the entire campaign leadership before being sent out. Depending on the point in the campaign, that could be anywhere between 17 and 22 people.
* Really, who knows why? I could speculate that it was paranoia over the possibility of a staffer making a gaffe, fear of the “liberal media” spinning even the tiniest of ambiguities into an anti-Republican talking point, or any other thing. I don’t know what they were thinking. This is the Mitt Romney campaign. Who knows what any of them were thinking?
This completely constrained the ability of the Romney campaign to respond to unplanned crises. The Obama team, meanwhile, had total autonomy. The upper brass trusted the digital media team enough (and they were trained well enough) on the major messages and images of the campaign to tweet without pre-approval. As a result, they could move as fast as Twitter itself.
That’s why, when Clint Eastwood went on his rant to the empty chair at the Republican National Convention, the Obama campaign could tweet the perfect reply within hours: a photo of Obama’s head and ears sticking over the back of the President’s chair in a White House meeting room, and three words, “This seat’s taken.”
When your medium of communication moves beyond a particular threshold of speed, you have to trust everyone whose fingers are on the keyboards. Romney’s team was so paranoid about messaging and a hostile media that they kept a communications approval process barely suited to the speed of cable news: they could formulate, approve, and broadcast a response to an unexpected development by the next day.
Setting an agenda in online media requires a response time of an hour. Perhaps even less. That takes lightning fast reflexes. But it also takes trust in the lower-level staff whose job is to physically broadcast those messages.