Shortly after former Senator and Navy officer Jim Webb announced he was running for President, I decided to follow him on Twitter, knowing full well that these pages are almost wholly run by staffers and not the candidates themselves. I liked Webb’s diverse career paths and rigorous academic background, so I decided to throw the guy a virtual token of support. Of course, a Twitter follow is virtually useless – it’s slacktivism, and I know it – but hey, why not?
Imagine my surprise when Jim Webb followed me back.
Candidates rarely follow their own followers on Twitter – unless said a follower is, say, Jon Stewart or a major news anchor or a famous actor. Little fish like me rarely get Senators following them. This is how Twitter works; the big sharks follow each other and just assume that the rest of us will read what they post.
Yet Webb (or Webb’s staffer) followed me back! And based on the people Webb follows on Twitter, there are quite a few other regular folks “he” follows, too.
It’ll be interesting if Webb’s people continue this strategy going forward, as a form of digital populism to increase Webb’s public profile. Whether or not Webb follows everybody on Twitter, I see such activity as the next frontier of political campaigning. In other words: I the Candidate don’t just expect you to follow me; I follow YOU! I’m a regular guy (or gal) on Twitter like you! I care what you have to say! Or at least by following, I the Candidate give the impression I care what you say.
We live in an age with a near-instantaneous rate of media turnover, where the one constant factor is the existence of digital media. People forget what public figures say on Twitter or Facebook, but people rely on Facebook and Twitter to be around the next day. Quantity, not quality, of followers trumps all. This is a time of mass virtual narcissism. So, if suddenly a gubernatorial or senatorial or PRESIDENTIAL candidate follows an active social media user, that user is likely to feel incredibly flattered. Posts and Tweets come and go, but tomorrow Sen. Webb will still be following me on Twitter. Aw, shucks.
This is how politicians will win elections in the Age of the Meme – by following everyone, by giving the impression they care what every John Doe says on Twitter, and by perpetuating mass flattery upon digital users.
Nonetheless, Jim Webb seems like a cool guy, and I’m flattered he follows me on Twitter. What can I say; I’ve drunk the digital Kool-Aid, too.