Is the MySpace generation really ready to make an impact in national politics? Well, MySpace sure thinks so.
The all-encompassing site launched a new "election portal" called Impact last week, with the goal of bringing together all of the presidential candidates' MySpace pages, plus a ton of other political content - news, jobs, videos, and even a voter registration link - in one place. And while pundits are heralding the site as a positive step toward engaging younger voters, it is the media that should be truly concerned with how MySpace is changing the election's landscape.
In one sense, such efforts are nothing new. Impact could be described as "Rock the Vote '96" updated to fit the current technology. At least since the Robert Kennedy campaign, there has always been some sort of concerted effort to reach out to younger voters, an attempt to convince them that politics is cool, important, and worthwhile.
But as Eugene McCarthy can tell you, younger voters' enthusiasm is not always enough to carry a candidate into the White House. In fact, despite the raft of outreach programs over the years, there is little evidence that the youth vote will be overtaking the elderly vote in importance any time soon.
The candidates themselves are, in all likelihood, more concerned with MySpace's fundraising potential than its dialogue-building capabilities. Ever since Howard Dean shot to the front of the Democratic pack last election while spending money largely raised online, it has been a given that all of the serious candidates for 2008 will devote serious resources to Internet fundraising. And indeed, each candidate's MySpace page offers not only position papers, staged videos, and zodiac signs, but also quick and easy links to donate cash.
But the real impact of Impact - one that will last way beyond the 2008 presidential election - is the effect it is going to have on the role of the traditional political media. MySpace is unique in its potential for disintermediation. For years, presidential candidates and politicians have tried to figure out how to get around the "filter" of the media and take their message directly to the public.
MySpace is the most popular online tool ever created for presenting oneself to others exactly as you want to be seen. It allows users - the candidates - the ability to customize virtually every aspect of their page.
Unlike an official campaign Web site, for example, MySpace lends an air of informal, buddy-buddy connection to the interaction between a candidate and a curious young voter in cyberspace. It encourages the feeling that a user is receiving straight talk by mimicking the interaction that online denizens have had hundreds of times with their other MySpace friends. It is the 2007 Internet version of Bill Clinton sliding into your booth in a diner in New Hampshire and shooting the breeze for a while on the campaign trail.
None of this bodes well for the mainstream media, which is already straining to retain its relevance. Impact's launch can do nothing but hasten the demise of the relationship between traditional political reporters and the young audience. For a profession already viewed skeptically by that group, one constantly trying to figure out how to win the competition with bloggers and the loss of institutional respect, MySpace's latest move represents progress in a scary direction.
Wes Pedersen, a DC veteran who now heads his own eponymous PR firm, says that Impact is "a natural" and will inevitably help young voters realize the amount of influence they can wield.
"That doesn't mean Impact will void the traditional media's role as message carrier," he says, "but it sure is going to get into print media's income and influence."