Party conventions get social, with major social-media ramp-up

Posted: August 31, 2012

Democrats and Republicans, for all their differences, are joining in the same revolution this political season:

They're blowing the walls off their national conventions.

The dynamite: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Foursquare, Instagram, Pinterest, Spotify, and Flickr.

The GOP and the Democrats have created bristling, bustling social-media rollouts for their conventions, in the biggest such effort in U.S. political history - the reinvention of the convention.

"It's a sign this media age has come to maturity," says James Davis, communications director for the Republican convention. "We want to create a convention without walls."

For her part, Nikki Sutton, director of digital media for the Democratic convention, says, "We aim to make this the most open, accessible convention in history."

In fact, both Davis and Sutton spoke almost exactly that very sentence.

The conventions require so much additional bandwidth and WiFi access that AT&T sank $140 million in upgrades to the Tampa region, $625 million in Charlotte.

Here's but a taste of what the parties are throwing at us:

AT&T-designed mobile apps let you live-stream convention activities, read and join in online conversations, or post, share, or download photos. All the major social-media platforms (Facebook, Google, etc.) are integrated, so you can mix, match, bop from one to another. Redundancy above all.

On Google, there's gavel-to-gavel live-streaming. On Google+, "hangouts" let you video-conference with up to nine other people, and share it with the world. The stars are big-time politicians or personalities. U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts, from Chester County, was hanging out on Wednesday, discussing Pennsylvania.

Twitter presences - at @GOPconvention (more than 19,000 followers) and @Demconvention (more than 12,000) - network, announce, coordinate, create conversations. Gov. Christie opened an account, @christiekeynote, just for his keynote address; on Tuesday, the tweet was "Finished with speech prep--now just 11 hours to showtime!" At @Demconvention, tweeters are directed to Pinterest, another social medium: "Stick a pin in it. Follow our #DNC2012 boards for convention updates at http://pinterest.com/demconvention.";

Extraordinarily interactive Facebook pages organize all the other activity. "We have websites," says Davis, "but they're no longer the central focus. Our Facebook pages are where we orchestrate everything."

As of Wednesday, the Republican page had 15,788 likes and the Democratic page 24,411.

YouTube offers live-streaming, on-demand vids, plus conversation and community. Both parties have been on YouTube for months, with prep videos, history, profiles.

The Dems have "tweet-ups." On Twitter, the party held a forum in which interested parties were selected (via a sort of contest) to tour convention sites at Charlotte and meet bigwigs.

The GOP convention features "conversation rooms," digital green rooms for speakers. Pre- and/or post-speech, they tweet with followers, do a "hangout," or a Facebook town hall, or post photos.

Whew.

So why do this? Why create, alongside the flesh-and-blood, brick-and-mortar convention, a separate world in the Web, Twitterverse, Blogo- or appmosphere?

Three reasons: (1) to enliven what have become the most boring (and ignored) of public events; (2) to grow audience - to "engage more people," in Sutton's words, "and meet them where they are, and (3) "To get these hidebound institutions out of the 19th century and into the 20th - and then start working on the 21st," in a memorable assessment by Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of National Politics at the University of Southern California and director of communications for Sen. John McCain's presidential bid in 2000.

Interest in conventions long has been on the wane. TV viewership has declined since 1980, according to Nielsen numbers. For 2012, the major networks joined the yawnfest, with only three hours of each convention over three nights. (All networks broadcast them online gavel to gavel, as do CNN and other cable news channels.)

Why the decline? Because the conventions have become more and more rigidly scripted, until they are little more than infomercials.

"After the unruly conventions of the 1960s, new rules exerted national-party central control on the conventions," says Mildred Elizabeth Sanders, professor of government at Cornell University. "Now nothing much happens. The candidates are known, and there are no longer any good fights over policy planks. The parties themselves bear a lot of the responsibility for the loss of interest."

Sanders sighs and longs for the old days: "It gets to where you miss the mess, the bad stuff."

"Clearly, the parties had to do something," says Schnur. "And just as clearly, the idea is to get more people involved in a conversation from which they've felt excluded."

Question: In throwing the convention open, won't the control-freak parties be risking a loss of control?

"Exactly," says Schnur. "A national convention is all about message control. But social networking is about anything but. Something's going to have to give."

Davis says he'd gladly trade some control for a payoff in eyeballs and engagement: "Now you're part of the nomination process, the energy and excitement. That's good for us, good for the party."

For the GOP, there's a sense that in 2008, they lost the social-media war, and they're determined not to repeat the experience. Scott R. Thomas, 22, is from Pottsville and is a state GOP delegate to Tampa. He also writes a political blog, Pottsville's Future. He opened his own Twitter account just for the convention.

"Four years ago, Barack Obama won because he reached out to young people via social media," says Thomas, speaking by phone from the convention. "Now, the Republican Party has closed the gap. I think that'll be huge for Mitt Romney this year. It's a level playing field now."

All aspects of the convention now reflect social media. Many of the slogans on display at Tampa - "We Built It," "We Can Change It," "We Can Do Better" - are designed to be made into Twitter hashtags, to be zoomed around the Twitterverse.

"The parties have to embrace new media, because parties are about getting the word out," says Schnur. Change has been blindingly fast; of the nine platforms listed at the beginning of this piece, four didn't even exist in 2008, and one, Spotify, rolled out a month before the elections.

"For John McCain in 2000," says Schnur, "we thought we were so cool, so far ahead of the curve. But I tell my students things we were doing back then, and it's like telling them about the butter churn or the eight-track player."


Contact John Timpane

at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or follow

on Twitter @jtimpane.

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