Mazel Tov

02.04.14

Ten Years On, Facebook Has Changed Politics

Mark Zuckerberg’s creation opened a new avenue for politicians to be more real and for voters to let them know what’s on their minds.

With my husband’s birthday coming up, I found myself standing in the local Paper Source yesterday hunting for the perfect card. On the shelf, amidst the cards featuring puppies or cartoons or dirty jokes, I spied perhaps the ideal birthday card for anyone who came of age in the era of social media.

“I’d know it was your birthday even without Facebook.”

Today, on Facebook’s very own special tenth birthday, it is undeniable that the friend-connecting site hatched at Harvard has altered the social fabric of the lives of millions, and has changed not just how friends interact with friends but how citizens interact with their leaders—for the better.

I joined Facebook in April 2004, back when you could see a graph of how all of your friends were connected, back before there was a “wall” or a “news feed,” back when it was still The Facebook. Ten years later, my grandfather is on Facebook. (Hi, Pap.) So are 71% of all Internet users surveyed by the Pew Research Center (PDF), and 79% of young voters (PDF). All of my photos live on Facebook. These days, it really means something to be the friend who learns of an engagement or job change or pregnancy not through Facebook. “Facebook Official” exists as the term for when one’s relationship engagement or marriage has been registered through updating one’s relationship status.

Facebook is no longer just a bunch of profiles; it is our real-time autobiography to which all of our friends and loved ones constantly contribute.

It is also a way for political leaders to try to enter our circle of friends.

Consider this: the photo of a hug between Barack and Michelle Obama became the most popular picture in the history of Facebook. The picture is simple—a beautiful moment, a peek into someone’s life, not unlike other photos one might see in their Facebook News Feed aside from, of course, the fact that it stars the newly re-elected President of the United States.

Now also consider this: a fascinating study in contrast emerges if you take a look at Mitt Romney’s Facebook page and scroll through his timeline.

Start at the conventions. From September through November 2012, most posts are clearly campaign posts. “You did build it,” “help us get to 6 million likes,” pictures of a rally, “we can do better,” “download our app.” Campaign ads, graphs, and charts galore. The usual fare.

Something funny happens in 2013, when the campaign has melted away.

There are photos celebrating the births of new grandchildren.  Pictures of Mitt strolling through campus for Ole Miss gameday. A “Happy Thanksgiving” note with Mitt and a grandchild and a sled. And for Christmas, “from our family to yours,” a beautiful photo of Mitt and Ann with all of their grandchildren in coordinating outfits. Occasionally a political link or note appears, but they hardly comprise the bulk of the posts.

Not unlike what you might see if you hopped over to the Facebook page of one of your old friends. Endearing, personal, genuine.

Last month, the documentary Mitt was released on Netflix, giving people a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes life of the Romney family on the campaign trail. (There is still consternation amongst some Romney advisers about whether or not this personalized image of Romney should have been revealed before election day.) In general, the consensus is that more of the “real” Mitt—“selfless, loving father and husband who’s down-to-earth, self-effacing, and even funny” according to left-of-center Talking Points Memo—would have been a boon to the campaign.

Facebook is no longer just a bunch of profiles; it is our real-time autobiography to which all of our friends and loved ones constantly contribute.

The truth is that we as a society are now more accustomed than ever to knowing, moment-to-moment, what is going on in other people’s lives. In some ways, it’s as if we’ve come to expect it. (See also: the explosion of reality TV.) In the last ten years, Facebook has opened a window into the day-to-day goings on of each of our lives, and the lives of those we love. It’s no surprise, then, that we’d also start to expect the same from our celebrities and candidates and leaders. There’s comfort to be found in knowing that “politicians…they’re just like us!

Facebook says its goal is “connecting the world.” In a world where voters are losing trust in big institutions like media and government, the ability to connect more directly to our leaders, without a middleman is enormously powerful. Sure, most politicians these days still just use Facebook to promote their talking points and carefully honed messaging. But even if it’s just Newt Gingrich taking selfies with zoo animals or President Obama throwing the football, Facebook offers leaders a chance to pull back the curtain on their own lives and at least try to make the case that they aren’t so different from us, after all.

So happy birthday, Facebook. Here’s to another ten years of birthday reminders, of vacation photos, of reconnecting with old friends. And, hopefully, to ten more years of tearing down the wall between our leaders and the people who elect them.