On Saturday, I was a delegate to the Ward 13 DFL endorsement convention for the Minneapolis City Council. It was the first time I’d ever taken part in one of these events, and it was as old-school as could be: candidate speeches in the Washburn High School auditorium, signs and T-shirts, paper ballots counted by hand.
But before entering the auditorium, the candidates spent months building social media networks: Facebook pages, email blasts, Twitter feeds. Their efforts reflect the fast-changing world of social networking, which is affecting politics just as it does so many other aspects of our lives.
Two-thirds of the social-media users in America have taken part in some sort of online political activity in the past year, according to a new report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
This takes on even greater weight when you consider how much social media use has grown in just the last election cycle. In 2008, only 33 percent of Internet users were active on social media. In 2012, nearly 70 percent were. In just four years, social media use more than doubled, transforming from a minority activity to something that’s verging on ubiquity — at least among Americans who use the Internet.
However, it’s easy to forget that nearly half of all Americans don’t use social media — some because they’re not on the Internet at all, others because they haven’t dived into the social pool. To me, the most interesting finding of the Pew report was that more Americans still engage in the political process offline than online.
About 39 percent of Americans engaged in an offline political activity last year: attending a political meeting, taking part in a group involved with a public issue, contacting a government official, working for a candidate or party, signing a paper petition. About 34 percent of Americans engaged in one of those activities online.
The old-school politics I experienced last weekend still play a key role in the American system. But just as loyal newspaper readers skew older, so do loyal civic activists. There were a lot of gray hairs in the Washburn High auditorium.
If Pew does another survey four years from now, I fully expect that online political activism will surpass the press-the-flesh version.
The personal touch will never completely leave politics. But it will become a side dish rather than the main meal.