Just when you think Twitter is taking over the world, a local election reminds us that there are voters beyond the digerati.
Prior to results rolling in Monday night in Toronto, I sat glued to my tweet stream watching users post instant photos from long election lines, encourage online friends to get out to the polls and rave about a new city filled with hope. What a difference a few minutes makes.
Shortly after 8 p.m. when local TV stations declared a Rob Ford victory, Twitter no longer resembled the web utopia of just an hour before. While anchors and reporters calmly shuffled between political pundits and candidate parties, tweeters lashed out about our new mayor.
While many messages aren't fit for print, @davefleet summed up the digital vibe: "Judging from the reaction on Twitter, Toronto's Twitter users aren't representative of its voting population." Every few minutes tweeters compared right-leaning Ford to past U.S. President George W. Bush, declared that our city's world-class reputation is heading straight down the gutter, and shared endless jokes about the mayor's "gravy train" catchphrase. But where was all of this passion weeks leading up to the election? Toronto's Twitter elite weren't making much noise this fall about the fate of our city, leaving Ford's supporters to dominate at the polls. In social media, it's never about the sprint, it's about the marathon.
Barack Obama demonstrated this long-term approach months before he became President 2.0. As Edelman points out in a report called "The Social Pulpit," Mr. Obama won the support of more than 13 million online fans by starting early, channeling online enthusiasm among specific groups, and integrating online advocacy into every element of his campaign.
Take a look at Ford's ( @robfordteam) and Smitherman's ( @G_smitherman) Twitter feeds over the past few months and you'll see little effort to turn regular people into engaged voters. What you will see is a string of impersonal campaign tweets, little direct interaction with tweeters, and no retweets or community building in sight. There was no clear web strategy from either party, just a weak attempt to make a quick online appearance here and there.
While clearly Ford doesn't have much support on Twitter, the web world was Smitherman's to own. Toronto is consistently one of the top 10 Twitter and Facebook cities in the world, so the potential for citizen engagement and mobilization is massive. That could have changed the results, quite possibly, and it would have focused the anti-Ford community on Twitter.
However, not all hope is lost for a good social media story on the political front here in Canada. Just last week 38-year-old Naheed Nenshi was elected mayor of Calgary. He has more than 15,000 friends on Facebook, a video podcast, a daily blog, an iPhone app and a healthy Twitter community that he speaks to regularly. Nenshi is a great example of how social media can help a politician, especially one who needs a leg up.