The new word of mouth

This year, the Student Government Association at Northeastern received more votes for the presidential election since they switched to the direct election system four years ago. With a little over 3,500 votes, 24.85 percent of the student body was represented, according to Matt Soleyn, the former director of public relations for SGA. In recent years, SGA has had trouble reaching the required 20 percent mark (20 percent of the student body must vote either for a candidate or “no confidence” for the election to count) during presidential elections. So what was so different about this year?

Similarly to how President Obama used Facebook to reach the younger demographic during the presidential election in 2008, social media played huge role in our own elections. Twitter, Facebook, Google Chat, and personal web sites allowed candidates to reach students who are abroad or off campus, continue their campaigning deep into the night, and answer questions from students in a timely and succinct manner. But talking to candidates and members of SGA this week made me rethink just how far social media can take you in the world of politics.

The SGA Office

Click on this image for more photos from the campaign.

During elections, there were really three campaigns going on simultaneously. Amanda Sabia and Ryan Fox were campaigning hard for president, while SGA was trying to get out the vote to students. SGA used everything from Twitter to Facebook to reach students and encourage them to vote. SGA also uses social media throughout the year to get in touch with students.

“The best part was students would tweet us issues that they had on campus,” said Matt Soleyn, who held his position up until election night. “So if their classrooms didn’t have enough seats, they would tell us and we would get that worked on by whatever committee handles that. If the dining hall didn’t have something one day, they could tweet it at us and we would get the people on the food advisory committee to look into it … The dialogue back and forth with the students [was great]. So students wouldn’t have to send an e-mail or come to the SGA office or come to Senate. They could just tweet it to us. And they’d see that their issue would get looked in to.”

During the election, SGA held a debate over Twitter, using the @SGANortheastern account to direct questions to the candidates.

“I think it was successful because it got both candidates to show what their positions were on a few issues and where they were different and where they were the same,” said Soleyn. “It was also good for people who were outside Boston and couldn’t come to a debate so they could see them on Twitter.”

Amanda Sabia, the current vice president of academic affairs who had an unsuccessful run for president, had some logistical issues with the Twitter debates.

“It was interesting,” she said. “For the first two or three days, I was using the @Sabia4President Twitter account, separate from my own personal Twitter account … they were linking my personal one. And I had no idea because I was checking the other one and I was like ‘Oh, I guess they’re not starting up yet.’ But those debates were interesting and also the most frustrating. I remember sitting in my apartment trying to answer the questions … wishing that I had 180 characters.”

Ryan Fox, SGA president who was just elected for a second term, used the 140-character limit to the fullest extent.

“I ended a lot of mine with a link for more information,” he said. “I wanted to link it to more text … but I didn’t do that, I just linked it to more information on that topic.”

Amanda Sabia said that her Google Chat status helped her in ways that she never imagined.

“Surprisingly, setting my Gchat status to updates throughout the campaigning was more impactful than I thought,” she said. “A bunch of the people who were not directly involved with my campaign were able to update what they were telling their friends about the election based on my status updates.”

But she also said that Twitter and Facebook can only get you so far. The personal connection, which you can’t create over the internet, is still the most important part of a campaign.

“For me, I spent a lot of time talking to people, I knocked on dorm rooms, sitting in lobbies and talking to people,” she said. “I would be interested to find out who out of those people I talked to, who actually went out and voted. I spent a lot of time on personal interaction.”

Fox was wishing for a longer campaign to see how big of a role social media could have played.

“A lot of the social media is hard, because its such a short campaign that at the same time you have to use it,” he said. “Its hard to build your own branded network, but you have to use what you have already, what you already built up.”

To manage all of the social media aspects of his campaign, Fox used CoTweet to link his Facebook and Twitter accounts.

In the future, Fox, Sabia, and Soleyn all see social media playing a big role in elections.

“It shows that we’re embracing the new technologies,” said Fox. “So much of it is word of mouth. But word of mouth is not just word of mouth anymore.”

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