Politics and Social Networks: Voters Make the Connection

Ohioans Chris Myers, above, and Katie Stoynoff are among the growing ranks of voters who've used the Web for political discussion and campaign outreach. Myers, a Republican, founded the blog Swamp Bubbles.
Ohioans Chris Myers, above, and Katie Stoynoff are among the growing ranks of voters who've used the Web for political discussion and campaign outreach. Myers, a Republican, founded the blog Swamp Bubbles. (Jose Vargas - The Washington Post)
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By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Here in the battleground of all battleground states, the people in charge of this soon-to-end presidential campaign are Chris Myers and Katie Stoynoff.

But Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have never heard of them.

Myers, 33, is a lifelong Republican. Though he's always been wary of McCain's "Straight Talk Express," he got onboard the moment it made room for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. "McCain could not have made a better pick," says Myers, who lives in Toledo. On his community blog, Swamp Bubbles, where Palin is often maligned, Myers is her biggest defender.

Stoynoff, 32, meanwhile, is a die-hard Democrat. "Must have been born that way," she jokes. Raised in the small town of Green, just outside Akron, she signed up with Obama's campaign on Feb. 10, 2007, the day he announced his candidacy. That afternoon, Stoynoff logged on to Obama's social networking site and formed an online group, Akron for Obama.

Though they share almost nothing in common politically, Myers and Stoynoff are part of a growing set of Americans, "a participatory class," as Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet & American Life Project calls it.

Online social networking sites -- socnets, from community blogs to YouTube -- are changing how the members of this class get their news, whom they trust to provide it and how they act on it. Whatever the source, they comfortably and routinely comment on the news, reproduce it, then forward it to relatives, friends, co-workers and, yes, strangers.

The relationship between candidates and their supporters has shifted, too. Supporters see themselves less as agents of campaigns but as independent of them.

And with the Internet making it easier than ever for voters to fund a candidate, act as their own publishers and search for information (and misinformation), the Washington political establishment -- candidates, strategists and journalists -- has been forced to loosen its grip on setting the narrative of the campaign. For voters such as Myers and Stoynoff, this is a sign of how the electoral process has been democratized and individualized. It's neither McCain's nor Obama's campaign. It's their campaign.

"A campaign used to be the big gear trying to get you, the smaller gear, to turn around, to line up with their agenda and what they represent," Myers says. "Now, through blogging, through online donations, whatever, the voter is now the big gear."

The Socnet Forum

The online group that Stoynoff created last year kept growing: from 10 members to 30, then 85 and now 323. Most of them she's communicated with only by e-mail. Some she's met in person, at canvassing walks and volunteer drives.

She also joined other groups: Ohioans for Obama (1,502 members); Educators for Obama (1,786 members); Women for Obama (20,774). For most of 2007, it seemed as if Hillary Clinton had the nomination locked up; she had double-digit leads in national polls, and the media heralded her tightly controlled and well-oiled machine. For Stoynoff, it was comforting to have a network of Obama supporters online, "to feel like you're really a part of a grass-roots movement," she says.

She started blogging in the spring of 2007 -- mostly for herself. "I blog when I feel a frustration, or I feel like I have to speak out," says Stoynoff, an English instructor at the University of Akron. At 6:29 a.m. last Friday, for example, she wrote on her blog: "I am so stressed that I sent out an email to 230 people with the wrong version of the word polls in it. Hello! I am an English teacher."


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