Friending the President

Facebook and other online social networks have played an extraordinary role in this election season. But to what effect? Confronting your status-update addiction.

For months, I’ve received at least one Obama event invitation each week via Facebook. These events usually combine some sort of food and the words “for Obama:” “Beer for Obama!” “Bake Sale for Obama!” and once, “Eat Ragout for Obama!” So far, I’ve gained three pounds for Obama.

It’s no secret that politicians—or at least their media strategists—have taken notice of Facebook and logged on to promote themselves alongside Lord of the Rings characters. There are separate fan pages for both Senators McCain and Obama, not to mention thousands of user-created groups (both candidates have a “________ is a GIANT DOUCHEBAG” group created in their honor). At press time, the Obama/Biden ticket currently has around two million Facebook supporters, almost 18 times the number of votes with which Bush barely won Ohio back in 2004.

Students not even of voting age are shilling for a candidate on their personal pages. When I was in high school the only politician we got excited over was Jesse “the Body” Ventura, the former-wrestler-turned-Minnesota-Governor-elect, mostly because of the free “My Governor Can Beat Up Your Governor” bumper stickers. On Facebook, even for the under-18 set, you’re the exception rather than the rule if you’re not slapping a virtual campaign bumper sticker and then some across your personal page.

Among my virtual crowd, mainly out-of-college-by-a-few-years, Facebook has traditionally been treated as a proceed-with-caution activity: It’s necessary to have a profile, but kind of embarrassing to take it seriously enough to post constant updates and wall messages. But the election has conjured up exhibitionist urges in all of us, it seems. Political opinionating on Facebook runs rampant. For the past three months, my News Feed has resembled a schizophrenic CNN ticker alternating user-posted John McCain quotes and flip one-line campaign trail recaps with scattered smutty party pictures and virtual break-up announcements.

I’m no innocent. After the first debate I posted: “‘You’re right, John.’ BARF.” After the second: “Joe Biden is my daddy/spiritual guru/my everything.” And midway through the third, I was getting a little nervous that no witty phrases were coming to mind. For my status update, I settled on “Add ‘tiller’ to the list of words that age you,” but others had done better—the best I saw poked fun at McCain’s wandering onstage that night and was later sketched out on The Daily Show and read: “McCain, did you lose your dog?”

On Facebook, politics is just another flag to wave, to attract or repel. I never updated my status before this election. And often I try to stop and ask myself why, and why on Facebook of all places? Sometimes I have a quasi-valid reason, like I read a good article on Obama’s tax policy and I want everyone to see it—but am I caught up in altruism or actually the smug satisfaction of saying “Look what I found!” Other times it’s just a compulsion keeping up with the buzz. I feel a little like how Ted Haggard must have felt when he guiltily indulged in a male prostitute—guilty as sin, but oh-so-sated.

We may admire Obama for his lengthy and nuanced explanations, but we speak in Republican-ese, in catchphrases more in common with “drill, baby, drill.”Recently a Facebook “friend” of mine (in actuality a guy from Tennessee who crashed on my couch during college for a few weeks) posted this status message: “Kendrick is voting for John McCain because he’s white,” followed by the explanation on his Wall: “If people are going to vote for Obama cuz he’s black, I can vote for McCain cuz he’s white.” I unfriended him instantly, as Governor Palin would say, “without blinking.” (See also: the “I Wish She Had Blinked” Facebook group) My ex-boyfriend told a similar story. He noticed an old acquaintance from high school had updated her profile to display “Rudy G. is my guy” after the Republican National Convention. He quickly rid her from the ranks of his online minions. During elections, at least among those I know, there’s not much room for differing opinions in the ranks. Note, though, that where politics can cause disavowal, bad breakups aren’t so terrible. The ex and I remain online buddies. Oh, the sneaky logic of Facebook.

At times it feels like my fellow Facebookers and I are posting our political opinions for the same reasons we’re posting pictures or updating our relationship status—to create an alluring, albeit one-dimensional, identity for our friends, potential friends, and total strangers to see. We may admire Obama for his lengthy and nuanced explanations, but we speak in Republican-ese, in catchphrases more in common with “drill, baby, drill.”

To put it another way: If diehard Barack supporters asked themselves, “What would Barack do?” one answer would be: probably not pen a pithy, show-off jab at Sarah Palin for the top of his social network page.

Politics isn’t necessarily diminished in the world of online, beer-chugging photo-ops. My friend M. recently had the simplistic status message “I HATE Republicans” displayed prominently on her profile. Of course it didn’t do her justice—in person, she can still talk circles around most on every small aspect of both candidates’ health care plans—but the substance is still there. Our major means of communal expression just happens to cater to the flip and flashy.

And yes, I’ll be the first to post this article on my profile when it’s published.