Saturday, September 6, 2008

Obama vs. McCain: Social Networking vs. Reality TV

John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate has been described in the media as a "game changer"--a decision that helps to clarify the sharp differences between the two candidates. What hasn't been recognized is the way in which the selection of Sarah Palin has framed the upcoming election as a battle between two different 21st-century media formations--social networking and reality TV.

Common wisdom has it that Barack Obama's victory over Hillary Clinton was due in large part to his campaign's technologically savvy deployment of social networking media to recruit supporters and register voters, raise money, and engage a swarm or "smart mob" of millions of volunteer activists in getting out the message and the primary vote. The build-up to Obama's vice-presidential choice, culminating in the announcement of Joe Biden via text-messaging, epitomized the bottom-up new media technologies that the Obama campaign has used to systematically remediate late 20th-century practices of presidential campaigning.

McCain's campaign, by contrast, has been criticized for failing to employ the internet and other new networked technologies to empower its supporters. As a self-avowed technological illiterate, McCain has failed to capitalize on social networking technologies to expand and mobilize his base. As a 21st-century man, however, McCain is not innocent of new media formations. He is reportedly addicted to his cellphone, to the point that his advisers have, like parents of a misbehaving teenager, had to restrict his usage of this new media technology.

While Obama employs the texting capabilities of cellphones as part of his social networking campaign, McCain uses the cellphone strictly for one-on-one interpersonal communication. The selection of Sarah Palin, however, reveals that it would be a mistake to dismiss McCain as someone who is unable to use new media formations in the service of his campaign. Her surprise selection, which elevated a woman virtually unknown to the US media audience to the overnight media celebrity of the Republican vice-presidential nominee, remediates the structure of reality TV shows that are also significant parts of our contemporary televisual media environment. The intensity of feeling surrounding the selection of Sarah Palin, manifested in the explosion of emotional commentary throughout the blogosphere, is virtually identical to the way in which the virtues and vices of reality TV contestants are debated on the internet by avid fans. Although many of us have been amazed to see how someone who was unknown to the American media public ten days ago can inspire such intense and widespread support (and criticism), this kind of public fan reaction has been premediated for more than a decade by the emergence of reality TV as arguably the dominant genre of serialized television in the first decade of the 21st century.

In some sense, one might want to frame this contest of media formations as a battle between past and present, old and new--a battle that mirrors the contrast between McCain and Obama. But this too would be a mistake. Sarah Palin's youthfulness reminds us that history works unevenly and is not in any strict sense progressive. Broadcast media have not been superseded by networked media--social networking has not eliminated other more top-down forms of collectivity. New technologies do not determine new media or social formations even if they enable new possibilities that could not have been actualized in the same way in other technological regimes.

The outcome of the 2008 presidential election will not determine which of these competing new media formations--social networking or reality TV--prevails in the future. Nor will the outcome be determined by which media formation is more powerful in contemporary American culture. But one thing is certain: the outcome of the 2008 presidential election will be impacted as much by the efficacy of competing media formations as it will by the differences between policy formations and party platforms.

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