A new report just flashed across my Gmail account in a split second flurry of inconsequential data which I promptly deleted. The claim: that social media helped elect our current president. It lasted there long enough to make me think about the topic as an all-purpose term that includes Facebook, Google searches, instant messaging, or anytime a living person interacts with the computer. (Okay, so maybe that is sort of a broad description of social media, but the term changes depending on who's using it.)
I think Facebook and other social nets wield a lot of power. However, I don't think they actually have enough power to get someone elected. They helped, sure. I remember writing about how President Obama had almost ten times as many friends on MySpace and Facebook than any other candidate. The problem is, I think it's a street that runs both ways, and one lane is sputtering along while the other runs at lightning speed. Let me explain: I think the reason Obama had so many friends on Facebook is not because social media helped him get elected, but because he was very popular. That's the fast lane of social media: it reveals trends and popular opinion.
The slow lane is that these services were not really critical to his success. He would have been elected anyway. The Internet is one massive experiment in social engineering that reveals a lot about who we are and what we think about. But, it is still just bits moving along a network. Obama became popular because people really liked him and his views.
There's a lesson here, I think. For those trying to use social networks to actually influence thinking, you have to remember that most people are only paying attention to them in a sideways glance. They see the status of friends breeze by -- it's just a notch more important to them than spam.
None of these systems are game changers. Say you're a PR firm trying to get your product noticed. Social media helps. What actually gets the product noticed, though, is old fashioned advertising, word of mouth, and favorable reviews. It also has to be a good product.
President Obama used all of tools at his disposal, but without social media, I think he would have still had a landslide victory.
This story, "Does Social Media Have Any Real Impact?" was originally published by Network World.