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The real 'social media election' begins after the polls close

So, has social media fixed everything yet? It's election time, and if ever there was a time to fix everything, this is it.

Nobody ever accused social media of suffering from low expectations. This month, we've been hearing a lot of keening over whether this is Canada's "social media election." Everybody's waiting for the thing, but like Godot, nobody knows quite what it looks like, and it stubbornly refuses to show up. Every election since 2006 has been pegged as the one the Internet was really going to shake up.

Yet here we are, and the political landscape is still the same bog as far as the eye can see.

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Nor has the great democratic awakening of the youth materialized just yet. Feckless youth! Still young, after all these years.

It's tempting to write off the "social media election" as an object of media fascination, but the question is genuinely curious. The marriage between social media and campaigns should be perfect: on one hand, a technology that's used by tens of millions of Canadians, and which engages users in conversation by its very nature. On the other, a social process that's supposed to be the very centrepiece of citizen engagement. Yet the two hardly seem to talk.

Why? Bashing social media as vapid is too easy. Social media is less persuasive than we'd like to imagine it.

And more to the point, elections may have less to do with persuasion than we'd like to think.

By now, we're all fairly familiar with social media's foibles. This year, Twitter has become mainstream enough to be viewed as a saleable campaign tool.

This has had at least one democratizing effect: Previously, only the media got to receive soul-crushing press releases. Now every lucky citizen can get them. If you're curious about whether your local candidate had a great day of door-knocking in your riding, Twitter is here to tell you that they did.

There are other blips on the radar. Jack Layton has released an iPhone app. There is a movement afoot to send university students to the polls in "vote mobs," but as The Globe's Gloria Galloway has reported, there are good reasons to ask whether a vote mob will have a measurable effect. (Student activism is not a new concept.) And let us not forget the power of Facebook as a way to weed the undesirables from your Conservative rally.

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We bump up against social media everywhere, because it's a part of everything. But it's not a media of mass persuasion, the way broadcast media such as radio and television were. It's a vast cauldron in which ideas bubble and foam, and movements take shape and coalesce. It defies most attempts to manipulate it. It's fickle and slow, but for its moments of lightening-fast resolution. It's a great place to gauge mass opinion, but a lousy place to sway it.

Elections get far too much credit as agoras of conversation. We play at being cynical, but at the heart of it, Westerners have invested a great deal in the notion that an election is a time for debate and decision-making, and our attachment to the idea of the "social media election" springs from it.

When it proves not to be the case, yet again, we complain that politics these days - all attack ads and spin! - have ruined the ideal campaign we deserve. I'm not sure what people imagine that ideal to look like. I suspect it involves suddenly becoming interested in monetary policy and discussing it with your local candidate over brandy to the theme of Masterpiece Theatre, instead of ignoring the campaign until the last minute and then voting for the party that freaks you out the least.

Less popular is the notion that the ideal election may not actually exist. It could be that elections are in fact no time to have a serious conversation.

It's nice to think that elections are about persuasion but, on the ground, persuasion is a surprisingly peripheral part of the process. Local elections are remarkably mechanical things. They consist chiefly of compiling lists of voters who say they'll vote for a candidate, and then - come hell or high water - getting those voters to the polls on election day.

If technology has a role to play in elections today, it's here. In Toronto, Mayor Rob Ford's team decided they wanted nothing to do with iPhone apps and similar elitist whizbangery. Instead, they kept it simple, and used text messages and automated phone calls to round up supporters, get signs on lawns and harangue people on election day until they went to the polls. They stuck to the mechanics of elections, and they won.

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Social media and elections go together if we imagine that they're about persuading and being persuaded, but they're not. By the time an election is called, the conversation has already happened, and it's time to get to the polls. The real "social media election" begins the day after the polls close and the winner is announced, and it goes on, every day, from there. That's where to look for it.

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

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