Maltby: Facebook statuses don’t win elections

With the election over, we can get back to the important things in life again. Remember Facebook?

There’s a reason I make Facebook my procrastination destination of choice. It’s not the constant opportunities for flirting (my info says, smugly, ‘in a relationship’), and it’s not the intellectual stimulation afforded by the message boards of political groups. It’s not even the pitiful sense of community and solidarity – the knowledge that even while I slave over a 15-page paper, locked away from the world, my insecurities can be salved by the reassurance that I have “friends.”

It’s something far more obviously time-consuming than that. The real reason I can click and click forever without my mind wandering back to the world of work is the sheer variety and spice of life displayed on the pages of this human encyclopedia. It’s the fact that every single stupid photo and vacuous comment shows me a different facet of the human experience. Or at least, there’s enough constant change that I can justify clicking, and clicking and clicking. And then just check out one more friend’s update before I get back to work. At anytime, some friend might just have posted some radical news. And that’s why there’s nothing that has frustrated my online enjoyment more than mindless Facebook political tokenism.

Dear reader, you know what I’m talking about. By Sunday night, two days before yesterday’s election, an entire page on my screen listed reminder after reminder that “X just donated her status to get out the vote for Barack Obama on Nov. 4.” At one point, I could scroll through two pages before I found a single friend’s status that varied from this norm. And by varied, I mean, substituted the name McCain for Obama. It took me three pages to find a status that someone had actually customized. At the most basic level, this makes for much quicker reading and scrolling time – and thus much less time spent on the site. Suddenly Facebook became vanilla.

There are far more serious absurdities about the weekend’s phenomenon. The system worked by granting a “status donation” application access to one’s Facebook account, and then allowing it to automatically set the status on Tuesday morning to tell the world to “get out and vote” for a chosen candidate. I would be seriously concerned if a large proportion of the Yale population couldn’t type up its own political endorsements.

I am aware, of course, that this phenomenon is not one of mere laziness. Elections galvanize us all to feel part of greater political movements, and yesterday’s election, more than most, has given many on the Left — from students campaigning for government health care coverage to senior citizens anxious about social security, from trade unions worried about protecting jobs to civil rights groups hailing progress — good reason to celebrate their combined strength. Once a few friends have bought into the donated status phenomenon, the Eli who follows their lead does so more to show solidarity than to actually convince a friend to vote.

How many Yalies know potential voters who are apathetic during an election this significant – and even more absurdly, how many have floating voters in their contacts lists who might actually be swayed by someone’s Facebook status? If the future of this country is in the hands of those who will vote because Joe the Plumber’s Facebook status tells us so, we should all be worried.

It is dangerous when students get too much of a thrill about being part of a big herd. Before the actual election date, it looked too much like a premature celebration – an impression that Obama, who has dominated the Facebook support, was keen to avoid. But worse, it threatened to replace real political activism with passive applause in an echo chamber. It’s easy to change your Facebook status to support Obama. It’s lazy to let a computer do it for you and then pat yourself on the back for being part of the same team as all your friends. The internet has revolutionized our lives in our own lifetime, but that’s no reason to assume that online activity, however minimal, must have a revolutionary effect. Next time, if you want to use Facebook to support your candidate, then put the hours into creating groups that publicize policy, or use your status to link to op-eds that you find convincing.

If your candidate won today, don’t pat yourself on the back and assume it was your Facebook status that convinced the crucial voter who tipped the scales. Your mindless clicks on the Internet were not the match of the persuasive force of a canvasser knocking on someone’s door in Ohio, explaining face-to-face why he was giving up his time to go out in the cold.

And it really doesn’t make you look like an interesting human being worth my Facebook-stalking. Which you may think is a good thing, after all.

Kate Maltby is a junior in Saybrook College

Comments

  • SY 11

    Interesting, but I think you miss a larger point. The youth vote in the US has been notoriously low throughout history. The point of the facebook status update was actually to make individual facebook users who added it feel like part of a larger community, thus making them more likely to vote as a sign of solidarity with said community.

    Second, I think more worrisome the perceived apathy of relying on status updates to swing elections, is the problem of the passion behind Obama's campaign fizzling away. People need to realize that they can't return to political apathy now that a new party is in power. Everyone needs to remain engaged, otherwise the US could find itself in the same trouble as before. Accountability in government does not come about simply because we elect politicians who say they respect the principle, it comes about because the American people demand it, and we should demand it every day.

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