The 1960 televised debate between Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy was a turning point. It forever changed politics. The power of the visual image to emphasize sizzle over steak was initially a surprise to political scientists. Kennedy’s win, attributable to his superior performance in the debate, wasn’t supposed to happen.
And TV also changed the way Americans experienced the world. Suddenly, TV was the medium of social cohesion.
I believe that history will look back at the 2008 election and declare that it too represents a turning point. Just as 1960 is the moment in which politics, social cohesion, and how we understand the world changed because television came of age, 2008 represents a similar tectonic shift. Social media is just coming of age, and its effect on the body politic is unexpectedly becoming decisive. It has already begun to change commerce. It is now changing journalism, politics, and our relationships with the rest of society and with each other.
I am indebted to Joe Trippi for giving voice to this idea, with which I’ve been struggling uncomfortably for some months.
Joe, with characteristic clarity, helped me see the change as it’s happening. Joe and I have the good fortune to serve on the advisory board of Brodeur. Joe is fresh from being a senior advisor to the Edwards for President campaign. In 2004 he was national campaign manager for the Howard Dean campaign.
At the Brodeur advisory board meeting last week Joe described the difference between social media in the 2004 and 2008 campaigns. Joe described the Dean campaign – seen as breakthrough in the use of what we now call social media – as the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk test, that proved that a new technology is viable.
Four short years later we’re seeing the political equivalent of the moon launch.
According to Trippi, one reason Senator Barack Obama’s momentum is seemingly unstoppable is that his support is viral: it is voter-generated, and not dictated solely by some central authority.
Senator Hillary Clinton’s support, on the other hand, is still in the TV paradigm: radiating from a central authority, who provides command and control.
The two paradigms couldn’t be more different.
In the TV age, the cult of the leader prevailed. Walter Cronkite, Uncle Walter, as he was known, provided comfort when he told us, “That’s the way it is.”
As my colleague Laurel Hart has blogged on this site, journalism today is morphing with the blogosphere, creating user-generated news where increasingly journalists collaborate with readers, offering: “This is what I know; this is what I don’t know; what do you know?”
In commerce customers are designing their own products, in their own ways. They’re even reprogramming electronic gadgets. Social media is also changing how we relate to each other, and to society in general.
Any change of this magnitude is hard to see up close. We miss the contours of the change. Distance is often necessary to fully understand the change and its implications.
Just as in 1960 it took a while for the TV paradigm to be recognized widely, it will take some time for the new paradigm to become part of the public consciousness, even to get a catchy name. For now, though, it is enough to be attentive to the changes going on around us. These aren’t changes of degree. They are changes in kind. The game is changing in fundamental ways.
Business as usual will continue to exist, but business the new way will quickly overtake it.
We need to be ready.
I, for one, will pay even closer attention. I invite you to as well.
We’ll blog more about leading indicators that the change is taking place.