As the 2012 presidential election came to a close Tuesday night, so did another chapter of the Barack Obama narrative. There are no official numbers out regarding the matter, but new media, specifically social media, played a much larger role in each campaign than in past election cycles. Evidence of this can be seen through the fact that Obama posted the most popular tweet of all time Tuesday night after it was announced he won reelection. The candidates relied upon new media as forms of communication to appeal to a widening, more dispersed electorate who have moved away from traditional forms of mass media. Each social media platform works in different ways but all have a similar goal of connecting people and sharing content, stories and ideas.
Last week, I focused on Facebook and how the Obama campaign used this social media platform to attract supporters based on friends lists and internet browsing data. This week I will focus on a lesser-known social media platform that the Obama campaign began using in October of 2011: Tumblr. Tumblr is a microblogging website that is a combination of text, picture and video posts, often linked to outside websites, though some content is user-generated. Tumblr users can share content by “reblogging” it from a source like the Barack Obama Tumblr page or by reblogging it from another blogger. According to Digiday, the average amount of notes on a post on Obama’s Tumblr is 2,909. This means that an average 2,909 people reblog it, “like” or comment on each post. This is in stark contrast to the average 539 notes Romney’s Tumblr posts receive.
Though Tumblr is not one of the more widely-used platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the type of content generally posted on the site and reasons for the Obama campaign’s use of the platform raises interesting reasons for doing so. Though it is not at the level of Facebook or Twitter in terms of visibility, the site has seen a significant increase in the amount of traffic. Most of its users are characterized as left-leaning and more engaged in the political process than users of other social media sites.
The first post that was posted to Obama’s official Tumblr says “we’re looking at this as an opportunity to create something that’s not just ours, but yours too.” The notion of a narrative immediately comes to mind. Jeffrey Alexander in his book, “The Performance of Politics,” describes how narratives are created by campaigns and opponents in order to gain and organize supporters. An important line that sticks out in Alexander’s book is one regarding organizing efforts to gather supporters who will not only vote for the candidate but volunteer for him as well. He says “organizing…is about connection, engagement, emotion, morality and identification” (60). All of these characteristics can been seen in posts on Obama’s Tumblr since it was established one year ago.
Barackobama.tumblr.com constantly posted about ways to get involved with the campaign whether it be making phone calls or going door-to-door. They even took to using memes as a means of targeting their demographic and getting them to rally more support for the President. Looking beyond simply asking supporters to volunteer, a variety of posts that were (and still are being made) to the blog reflect the five underlying characteristics to increasing organization, as Alexander asserts.
The ability for followers to submit content to be posted satisfies the “engagement” Alexander identifies as a means of organizing. The ability for followers to disseminate information to others who might not be Obama supporters or those who are not enthusiastic about the election creates connection. The content involved in these posts are often times emotional because of similar experiences that voters are going through. A submission was made and posted to the blog by a life-long Republican who’s life was affected positively by the Affordable Care Act.
Obama’s Tumblr also identifies his supporters. The day before the election, many posts were made about successes that the President had that would have effected Obama’s likely voters. One highlighted the President’s repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and another highlighted his plan for making college more affordable. Both of these targeted key demographics Obama was likely to win over.This method was meant to mobilize supporters since the posts were so close to election day. It targeted those who are registered but may have needed a little more motivation to go wait in line at the polls.
As noted above, Tumblr is used by those who tend to lean to the left. Instead of trying to sway voters, the campaign used Tumblr as a means of exciting supporters so they have the enthusiasm to get to the polls on election day. Social media has allowed for this demographic to become more enthusiastic about voting. Digital Trends summarized the influence of social media best, “There’s something much more emotional about seeing your entire social network buzzing about the election than there is about getting a pamphlet in the mail. That whole ‘fear of missing out’ theory that social networking exacerbates absolutely applies to this election.”
This even alludes to what Alexander says about “connection.” Organizing a campaign should encourage connection with a candidate, making them more relatable. However, it is also important in the eyes of campaigns to connect with peers who think and vote similarly. This way they can excite each other about taking part in the democratic process. As I mentioned in my last post, peers and friends with whom you have a personal relationship have influence over a voter, more so than an outsider would.
Tumblr targets younger voters and is an unconventional means of political communication. For this reason, the campaign can post articles, graphics, videos, etc that would be off-beat from what traditional media and blogs post. Though no official numbers are out regarding how much of an influence Tumblr had on the election, it is important to note the reasons why the Obama campaign might have chosen this unconventional method of communication: exciting voters, creating a narrative, telling the story of the average voter, etc. It was a strategic decision made by the campaign, and the decision obviously did not hurt President Obama’s chances at reelection.