I always get carried away when I read something that excites me and tend to think, "Oh My God! That is the future!". And then I think about it a bit more, and decide it probably isn't after all. I had one such moment this week when I read about the MySpace Presidential primary. The idea is very simple. On January 1st and 2nd, MySpace will give its users a chance to register there support for a particular candidate. By holding it in the new year, MySpace will pre-empt the votes in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Real caucuses and primaries make two significant contributions to the nomination race. Firstly, and most obviously, allocate delegates to a party convention, mandated to support a specific candidate. Obviously, the MySpace primary won't do that. However, the second contribution of primaries is more open - they generate momentum for candidates (hence the phrase "the big mo"), giving a sense of who is up and who is down. This has a huge impact on the contests that follow. Of course, momentum isn't just generated by formal primaries. There are a whole host of metrics that contribute to measuring how well a candidate is doing - financial donations, opinion poll support and whether they have managed to woo big supporters. When I first thought about it, it occurred to me that the MySpace primary could fit nicely into that system, giving it real significance.
However, I then thought about it a bit more. I have to confess, my views waived when I read some responses to the idea in the blogosphere. A large number of responses argued the primary would not be secure. People could vote multiple times, be under the age of 18 or they might not even be an American citizen. Another common comment was that the people who would vote on MySpace would be unlikely to translate that into any other political action. Actually there is some evidence to suggest the young Americans are more politically active than they have been in a generation (of course, the causation of this is disputable - technology or circumstances?). However, that's not quite the issue.
The real significance of online metrics (and thus how they might come to influence the offline elections) is to be found in the extent to which they are translated into the real world. The problem is that no one really knows what the impact of, for example, having 100,000 MySpace supporters is. Likewise, all the fuss about one million strong for Obama is only meaningful if the people who have signed up for it are actually going to translate that act into other demonstrations of support - for example, going out and canvassing. Some sites are less problematic. For an example of this, let's think about ActBlue, the Democratic fundraising site. The significance of a candidate being at the top of one of their league tables is due to the real money people are donating to put them there. This money can then be used by a campaign, and therefore, at this moment in time at least, it has more intrinsic significance. We will only really come to understand the significance of social networking sites over the course of the election cycle.