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Identity Politics: A Social Media Election Retrospective

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Presidential politics coursework taught me that right now it's all about identity politics. Has been for a while -- reaching voters with an image that best reflects and represents our self-concept. There's more to it than that, obviously. But not much.

People vote based on personal identity, not on self-interest. People even vote directly against very practical aspects of self-interest on issues like economics and authority.

George W. was able to win the presidency -- twice -- when our middle class rural white community bought into the Bush Doctrine despite his offering little or no financial advantage -- and the disadvantage of losing some ability to control our own lives by institutionalizing the view of a Unitary Executive, with power more concentrated than ever before in our history.

What was gained was only a perceived advantage of economic and social control, by electing a personal icon some thought better represented those goals, and a president we all really wanted to grab a beer with.

The first presidential candidate to figure out how to use television in a political campaign won the election. It was Richard Nixon, in 1968. Before blogs, we could read about this stuff in books -- unless sufficient side commentary was available on television, of course. The Selling of the President 1968 hasn't hit the big screen yet -- but it should. No worries, chances are we'll be able to Netflix it soon enough.

If you're like me and you don't read books, then you definitely dig the prime social networking, creative art, and viral video series that punctuated the 2008 campaign media scene.

Social media doesn't change identity politics -- the consequences of which, as we've seen, can be bad. But they can also be good -- and social media can open new access and add extra transparency to the political process. It can reflect our identity in a more genuine, less manufactured way.

Internet. It's the new television. DIY style.

In 2008, Obama for America hired Facebook co-creator Chris Hughes to help design the social networking structure and new media strategy that would win the general election. "Their use of social networks will guide the way for future campaigns," Hillary Clinton Campaign Internet Director Peter Daou told the New York Times last July.

The campaigns coincided with a nation inspired to create our own celebratory social media content -- from across the country to Washington DC.

Artist Shepard Fairey -- noted for his street work, creative dissidence, and common-ground style -- designed an iconic campaign portrait image that has come to symbolize a new face of progressive change for America.

The craze has even come to allow you to create your own Fairey-style portrait and fully immerse yourself in an identity piece that's shaping our culture. And he hit the streets of DC with campaign charm that takes the day. Thanks, Shepard.

Similar styles popped up during the election, like Warhol-style renderings of Obama -- which is ironic since the famous screen-print portrait series is seen as an attempt to deconstruct pop-culture icons and illustrate their manufactured reality.

And the artistic print that connected our streets to the Internet and back to politics is just a touch of the social media that helped to tip a change.

Months before the Democratic Primary was finally decided between Obama and Hillary Clinton in June, a chorus of musicians came together to produce the Yes We Can video that took off on YouTube. It soon spawned a fitting counterpart clip to balance McCain's campaign message: No, You Can't.

Not to be out shined, viral video reflected our affinity for the leading ladies that came -- or so some hoped -- to represent a new, apparently sexy, vice presidential role. Congrats, Joe.

Salon.com's Live! Nude! Puppies! The Year in Viral Video begins by noting, "among other things, 2008 will be remembered as the year that professionally produced Web video finally trumped amateurs with webcams." Saturday Night Live's Sarah Palin Hillary Clinton skit gets mention, and we'd have been as happy with hockey mom family flick Head of Skate- - or everyone's favorite vice presidential-almost, Paris Hilton. Not to mention Obama Girl.

Social media is all over the new political scene. With print media going down the tube, news sources' flexibility in adapting to a new social media landscape will define the next era of reporting political media. Just a week ago New York Times published a video story of poetic perspectives -- First Words -- from a group of high school students burrowed in the Bronx.

The new www.WhiteHouse.gov hosts the first White House Blog, which links to the first White House YouTube channel. It's awesome.

Slate.com offers great commentary on the use of social media by a new administration, as does TechCrunch -- noting "[o]ne significant addition to WhiteHouse.gov reflects a campaign promise from the President: we will publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it."

What!? We can post comments on legislation...score.

So if identity drives politics and media reflects identity, social media is poised to be the new most influential political force of the next presidential era. Like television, but better. Its good use can offer open access to the largest participatory audience an American president has ever seen. It can pull everyone in to add something -- little by little, of our own -- until we put the pieces of our national identity back together, and get ourselves out of a mess at least eight years in the making.

Bottom line: we've got a brand new funky president.