Governors Are Fair-Weather Facebook Friends
By Kathleen Haughney, Special to Stateline
Governors may have sought to befriend you on Facebook or MySpace during last fall's election season, but don't be surprised if they don't "poke" you again - lingo for a digital "hello" - until the next time they need your vote.
A tour via the Internet shows that few of the 39 governors who joined the college Facebook craze, in which "friends" link to "friends" on the social networking site, have bothered to update their online buddies on post-election life. Fewer governors sought a presence on the alternative MySpace network, but most of those pages also have fallen into disuse since the election.
With nearly 12 million computer users under the age of 24 hooked into Facebook alone, according to Internet information provider comScore, some political experts say that abandoning the youthful digital terrain could come at a cost to politicians.
Politicians who use the networking tools effectively - posting messages on others' profiles, giving out information that is not from a brochure - are building a community that may contain future volunteers, voters or donors, said Julie Barko Germany, deputy director of the Institute for Politics and Democracy at George Washington University. "Abandoning it means losing this built-in community," she said.
As candidates, most governors' pages already were tame - some might even say lame - compared to those of the youthful populations on Facebook or MySpace that tend to post photos of weekend exploits and sometimes-spicy personal tidbits on their profile page. Several governors never went beyond bare-bones biographical information and a campaign mug shot. Ten settled for a generic American flag in place of a personal photo. Showing a little spark, though, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R) is pictured on a motorcycle and the pre-election profile of Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) shows him fishing.
Still, some aides say their bosses used those tools for campaigning only and left the site to volunteers or simply left it dormant like a campaign Web site.
For example, both Ritter and freshman Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe (D) still list their old campaign telephone numbers and addresses on their Facebook pages, and Beebe talks in present tense about serving as the state's attorney general.
An exception is Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), whose Facebook page is updated with news from her office and lists her favorite musicians - LaKisha Jones, Paul Simon and James Taylor - as well as her favorite movies - "Life is Beautiful," "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Patton."
Colorful links to her Facebook and MySpace profiles and to shots of her on the video-sharing site YouTube are featured on Granholm's political fund-raising Web site, www.jennifergranholm.com.
Chris DeWitt, a Granholm campaign adviser, said it's important for politicians to keep up with online networking after the election. "While some of the interest may have waned on political issues, these folks didn't all go away, and by not taking advantage of that form of communication, people are missing out."
Like Granholm, Iowa Gov. Chet Culver (D) also maintains an active Facebook account where he posts "notes" or press releases and an occasional video link. Culver communications director Brad Anderson said continued use of the site is part of an overall strategy to convince young people to stay in Iowa after they graduate.
Anderson said that it is difficult to tell whether the site is generating support for any of the governor's initiatives but that they know it gets noticed.
"When the Legislature is in session, we have a lot of young people come in and say, 'Oh hey, we saw your MySpace page,' " Anderson said.
Even when governors are ignoring their social networking pages, younger constituents aren't. Several governors boast thousands of virtual friendships. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) counts more than 8,000 Facebook friends. By contrast, Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R) has only 78 friends. Anyone who is a "friend" or "supporter" via Facebook or MySpace can post on the politician's page, including messages, links to articles, photos or video.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), whose profile gives little information other than his office and party affiliation, still has plenty of messages from constituents. A University of Florida student wrote that he thought the governor was a "good guy" but asked him to stop vetoing tuition bills. Another commented on the bachelor governor's love life, congratulating Crist on his choice of women.
One supporter of Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) recently visited the site to write that he appreciated Strickland's support of a giant banner of basketball star LeBron James that other state officials wanted removed from a side of a building. Strickland's Facebook page was started during the campaign and now is maintained unofficially by volunteers, said spokesman Keith Dailey.
Facebook spokesman Matt Hicks said the Web site began offering politician profiles last year. Facebook employees put up basic biographical information and then turned over responsibility of the profiles to the candidates and staffs.
Barko Germany said politicians and government officials accustomed to controlling the flow of personal information may seem reluctant to embrace the new technology.
"There is hesitation because the Internet seems uncontrollable and people in the political space are used to being able to control their message and their image as tightly as possible," she said.