by Guest Author - Mattea Schue with Barry Chudakov on November 26th, 2009

BarackObama Dot Com

In the 2008 election, the fight for the presidency took on a new dimension due to the Obama campaign’s intuitive understanding of the power of social media. It is no longer news that Obama’s efforts to tap into the Millennials’ exploding use of social networking sites and the Internet put him one step ahead of other candidates. Obama’s tactics also reveal the emergence of a Metalife, or the way our communication tools change our sense of identity and then change our everyday interactions.

While not an entirely new phenomenon, politics today is as much about the invention of a version of oneself as it is about the issues. John McCain dug into American folklore and called himself the Maverick; Al Gore, trying to distance himself from Bill Clinton, became a closed, stiffer candidate, someone almost unrecognizable from the man we see today signing copies of Our Choice at Borders. Enter Metalife: the marketing and selling of oneself by creating an image intended to appeal to voters and to differentiate one candidate from the rest. While the bottom line here is dollars (Obama was a ‘tremendous fundraiser’ getting equal support from small and large donors, then pulling in ‘successive support’ from the Internet ), Obama utilized communication tools that enabled his supporters to participate in the creation of the Obama brand. Essentially his image and reputation were enhanced by the two-way communication efforts of his campaign and supporters.

 

Image of President Obama created from state flags orginally on www.barackobama.com

Image of President Obama created from state flags orginally on www.barackobama.com

Metalife is the life we live in response to our communication tools. These tools have a largely unrecognized power to change our identity. Whether via instant email alerts to a phone, a ‘tweet’ sent to thousands, or a photo uploaded to the world of Facebook, individuals are constantly exposing themselves to the public. Our identity is no longer solely our physical self; it is the collaboration of our interactions through these communication tools. In essence, a person’s Metalife is a collaboration of the individual’s—and his audience’s—multiple ways of seeing and defining each other.

Inherent in this process is a paradox. We try to become, through using these tools, what or who we aspire to be; but that may not be the ‘who we really are’ in our day-to-day reality. David Brooks, among others, has questioned whether anyone can remain a ‘candid, normal person’ while running for president. But what does this mean? And why does it happen?

The Metalife reality is we have the power to alter or amend our ideal image through our use of these tools. We can label ourselves or show ourselves doing something that may not be immediately challenged as a valid representation. We can communicate to a public that was not previously our audience. We can strategically frame our words and shape our ideal image while creating new relationships. In the process, our individual presence grows through not only the creation of our own Metalife, but through others’ validation of that Metalife as well. (Here the paradox, and often the plot, thickens.) Metalife becomes then the mediator between these two components of an individual: the reality and the desired reality.

Whereas previously we conceived of ourselves as just a physical being, our life has grown into collaboration of our own and other people’s thoughts and collective interactions exposed through the use of communication tools. While it quickly has become second nature to upload our lives onto the platforms of the internet, we do not fully realize the extent to which we are changing as we are exposing ourselves. We are instantaneously reshaping our Metalife as we communicate through these tools.

Obama co-opted his supporters to create his own Metalife reflected in their eyes, in their thoughts and opinions of him—effectively creating a platform of a thousand mirrors—through the use of tools such as Twitter and barackobama.com. These platforms allowed Obama to create and shape an identity where people who had already aggregated could confirm his desired persona. In return, these users could reflect back his self-invention, sharing their thoughts with others, further helping Obama ‘prove’ his identity to a watching world. Obviously, this became a mutually beneficial Metalife relationship.

 

Credit: Mathieu L. Fiset, Flickr

Credit: Mathieu L. Fiset, Flickr

Politicians, like the rest of us, are able to create the identity that they want for themselves, because these new communication tools allow interactive feedback and response. By communicating through these tools, Obama and his followers were able to create and grow Metalives for themselves, directly tied to a cause that they strongly believed in. The final product of this Metalife relationship was a candidate that was exactly what the constituents wanted.

But still there’s the paradox: is the man the Metalife? Would these same supporters approve of a $1.43 trillion deficit or confirm Barack Obama’s decision to send 34,000 troops to Afghanistan? Is who we are who we say we are? Will greater transparency and freedom of information ensure congruency between person and persona? Is it possible to build a Metalife today for who you will be and what you will do tomorrow?

These are issues raised by the success of BarackObama dot Com, but we are all facing them now.

 

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