When Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi won his campaign, many people talked about the role that social media had played. Nenshi went from being back-of-the-pack to a 27,000-vote win in a little over a month. Many credit the win to a mobilization of younger voters who are heavy users of Facebook and Twitter—the Obama campaign is another prominent case study and the changes in Egypt from another angle yet another.
Amassing support for something using the lightning fast channels of social media can shift the tide quickly. The question we are increasingly pondering is what happens once the surging tide returns to equilibrium. In institutional terms, what sort of infrastructure do we have to continue to govern once the support has been gained? This isn't, of course, completely new to the current era. If support can build quickly, seemingly from nowhere, does the subsequent dissipation mean that the newly elected (or newly in power by other means) lack sufficient support to continue to carry out a political agenda?
If, in the past, it took years for you to build enough relational credibility, financial resources, and political capabilities to convince important players to back you, it was quite likely that you would continue to lean on them as you pursued the fulfilment of promises made—social capital is hard won and gets drawn on often in public life. Does the surging tide of digital opinion and activism provide the kind of post-election support that is needed to carry on the responsibilities of a new mandate? In the case of Obama, it seemed as though interest in the immediacy of social media interactions fell precipitously after the election. The disinterest appeared, in that case, to be on the part of the new administration but it might, in a different setting, represent an equally quick withdrawal of support on the part of supporters.
Again, similar dynamics were around long before social media took root. People have long had a propensity to abandon the heroes of the hour with alarming rapidity. What may be quite different now is the rate at which those dynamics change and their inherent unpredictability. Does the acceleration of support and withdrawal weaken the cohesion of our civic core? Do the architects of campaigns factor in the rapid and spiky support/disinterest so that those who find themselves suddenly at the head of the parade are able to carry out their executive duties effectively? Does social media popularity equal a substantive dose of social capital or is it, in the end, a precursor to serious long-term weakness?
Given the entrenchment of changing communication patterns and the long-term social changes that will proceed from those changes over time, we will need to get better at adjusting to changes like this. Public leaders, as difficult as their jobs can be, will be pressed even harder. Our civic structures must adjust to these changes in such a way that the different kinds of citizen interest—from social media to direct involvement—are able to be fully utilized in building a stronger civic core and easing the transition from social media landslide to substantive and effective public leadership performance.