What Sarah Palin Teaches Us About Social Media - InformationWeek

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Commentary
7/6/2009
10:41 AM
Michael Hickins
Michael Hickins
Commentary
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What Sarah Palin Teaches Us About Social Media

Sarah Palin's abrupt resignation on Friday wasn't a surprise to anyone who follows her on Twitter or Facebook, and that's all the former vice-presidential candiate really cares about.

Sarah Palin's abrupt resignation on Friday wasn't a surprise to anyone who follows her on Twitter or Facebook, and that's all the former vice-presidential candiate really cares about.Palin had Tweeted her supporters hours before her press conference:

We'll soon attach info on decision to not seek re-election... this is in Alaska's best interest, my family's happy... it is good, stay tuned.
Note the post-script, not at all added thoughtlessly: "it is good." Palin can give her followers the facts and the analysis all in one place -- no one gets to interpret what she's saying.

That's the first thing Palin can teach us about social media -- it can be used to frame your message. Ford may not have been able to change the facts about the Pinto, but social media could have given it more influence over the direction the discussion took.

Another thing Palin teaches us is to be unafraid of giving people unrestricted access to your pages, because your supporters will far outnumber your detractors. Palin has more than 594,000 "supporters," so for every Ingrid Klagenfeld who writes:

Palin is just exploiting your faith and your obvious gullibility to gain power. Go ahead - elect her! After all, America's right-wing, Bible-thumping, fascist white-trash folk deserve representation too.

thousands upon thousands of others are like Jo Anne Parker Thomas, who wrote

My family is so excited to think that you'll be "out there" for all of us. We need your strength, honesty and intelligence in today's world. We pray that you'll continue to be guided by your own convictions and not by swayed by others.

Palin also teaches us to keep it conversational and rough, rather than edited and silky. Her Facebook notes are more than unfiltered by the mainstream media -- they are appropriate to the choppy, herky-jerky writing style that epitomizes 140-character thought-bites and Facebook updates typed on mobile devices with tiny keyboards and short battery lives:

I've never thought I needed a title before one's name to forge progress in America. I am now looking ahead and how we can advance this country together with our values of less government intervention, greater energy independence, stronger national security, and much-needed fiscal restraint. I hope you will join me. Now is the time to rebuild and help our nation achieve greatness! God bless you! And I look forward to making a difference -- with you!

Palin also reminds us to always keep it personal -- and not like a press release or advertisement aimed at millions. Her appeal at the end -- "with you" -- would feel like a sales pitch on a campaign flyer, but comes across like a genuinely personal appeal on Facebook.

It doesn't take much imagination to see why Palin supporters believe the mainstream media distorts what she's really about. And for those who would like to convince the American public that the media is comprised of out-of-touch, elitist, anti-American snobs, the coverage couldn't have played into their hands any better.

Meta-culture news blog BoingBoing came across as the avatar of every reactionary political figure's fantasy of liberal media bias, quoting a French semiotician to deconstruct Palin's press release for jeering, sardonic effect:

[W]hat Roland Barthes would have called the pleasure of this text has to be savored in full to draw out its pure nuttiness. It's hard to know what to appreciate more: the all-caps prepositions; the sentence fragments that begin the fifth and sixth paragraphs, the run-on sentences, the frequent exclamation points!, the quotation from her parents' refrigerator magnet, the basketball analogy, the proposed logic of quitting so as not to be a quitter, or the grammatically incorrect final sentence framing the misattributed punchline, which was actually said not by General Douglas MacArthur but by General Oliver P. Smith. I especially like the capital O of "Outside" in "Outside special interests," which reminds us that the world consists of two parts: Alaska, and Outside.

Even in trying to respond to Palin's accusation that the media isn't giving her a fair shake, the Washington Post's Anne Applebaum actually proves Palin's point by pointing out that she made a grammatical mistake in writing "main stream [sic] media." By being unable to resist an irrelevant jab at Palin's failure to consult Strunk & White, Applebaum proves that she's actually unable to see past the surface of Palin's writing style to what's at the heart of her popularity.

So what is it exactly about Palin that's so appealing to her fans? Maybe the very fact that she's a poorly-educated, pious, flawed woman who's fighting for her beliefs and for her continued prominence. Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist representing the conservative voice, noted today that according to research from Pew, Palin has an especially high popularity rating among Americans without a college education (48 percent).

Palin's popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal -- that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal -- that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.
Contrast the hardscrabble lives touched by Palin's political philosophy with the way her hastily-arranged news conference and its aftermath was covered by the news media, and you can understand why so many believe there truly are two realities in America -- what the news media describes and what actually happens. Palin has understood how to use social media to use that disconnect to her advantage.

But Palin isn't infallible, and her experiences also teach us a couple of don'ts: by threatening to sue the media for reporting on unsubstantiated rumors of an FBI investigation, Palin brought more attention to the rumor than if she had simply let it alone. The lesson here is, you can bypass the media to discredit it, but suing it gives it the credit you're trying to deny it. It would have been a lot more effective for her to simply Tweet: "there's more lies being spread by the MSM."

Finally, choose your Twitter handle wisely; just as Palin won't be Alaska's governor much longer, my Twitter handle is @Michael_Curator because I made the mistake of identifying myself with a former employer rather than keeping it purely personal. Not matter what use we choose to put it to, social media is at its root an exercise in personal expression.

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