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Layton Leads (on Facebook)

Tyee helps track buzz in the online world of 'social media.'

Monte Paulsen 10 Sep

Monte Paulsen is investigative editor of The Tyee and is captain of The Hook, the Tyee's new political blog.

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TechPresident graph showing candidates' current Facebook success.

NDP leader Jack Layton narrowly leads Tory PM Stephen Harper -- in the contest to win Facebook friends.

Liberal leader Stephane Dion is a close third, Green leader Elizabeth May is a distant fourth and the Bloc's Gilles Duceppe is barely in the running on Canada's most popular English-language social networking site.

Harper holds a sizeable lead on Technorati, however, while May, Dion and Layton are vying to be Canada's second-most-blogged-about PM candidate.

Those are the results from TechPresident's new tracking charts of Canadian Prime Minister candidates.

"While I would never suggest that this is the same thing as a poll, or that it provides anything like a representative sample of the population, I do think this provides a window into the minds of people who tend to be more politically active than average," said Micah Sifry, of TechPresident, a U.S. nonprofit that -- with input from the staff of The Tyee's new political blog, The Hook -- has created online charts showing how Canada's leadership candidates are performing in the virtual world.

"The web is a useful early warning system, a barometer for understanding where excitement and interest lie, especially among political activists," Sifry told The Tyee. "There is a definite correlation between the kinds of people who read and write on blogs, and the kinds of people who are more likely to donate to candidates or volunteer on campaigns."

The Hook will be watching closely to see whether Canadians take to online activism with the same fervor that Americans have during this year's presidential campaign.

Canadian leaders all score low

Alfred Hermida is a BBC veteran who helped launch that venerable organization's news website more than a decade ago. Now a professor at the University of British Columbia, Hermida expressed surprise that all three leadership candidates have so few Facebook friends.

"They're each at about 12,000 Facebook supporters, out of a potential electorate of millions. That's not very impressive," he said.

"And it's not that big a gap. So you can't really make the leap to saying any one of these candidates is ahead."

Hermida said the situation is very different in the U.S., where Democrat Barack Obama has 1.5 million to Republican John McCain's 300,000 supporters.

"What does this relatively low online presence tell us? Does it tell us that none of the candidates have really reached into the population of heavy Facebook users?" he asked.

But while the UBC School of Journalism has launched a similar tracking system, professor Hermida warned against reading too much into online support.

"There is a danger in extrapolating what is happening on Facebook to what will happen on election day," he said. "Look back at Howard Dean and how he used the Internet to galvanize support four years ago. If you'd looked purely online, you'd think he was the ideal candidate. But he didn't do that well over all."

Quebec remains a virtual solitude

It's no surprise that Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe ranks poorly on these English-language social networking sites.

Only 15.2 per cent of the Quebec population uses Facebook, compared to 32.2 per cent in Ontario and as high as 33.6 per cent in the Maritimes, according to April 2008 data from Comscore.

What is surprising is that no French-language site has yet emerged to fill the gap.

While 42 per cent of Canadians in English Canada say they have personally conducted activities on social media networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Windows Live Spaces or online dating sites, only 24 per cent say so in Quebec, according to Jupiter Research.

"The next question this begs is, Where are the Quebecois online?" asked Darren Barefoot, a respected Vancouver-based technology blogger and co-founder of Capulet Communications.

"They're clearly not on these English-language sites. But I bet they are somewhere," Barefoot said.

Weak ties

Hermida and Barefoot both downplayed the role of online supporters.

"These are weak ties," Hermida said. "It's what social scientists call ambient awareness."

"There's a latent potential there, but as a virtual group there are a lot of question marks about the actual impact. That's the unexplored potential of these networks," Hermida said.

"Don't overestimate people in your Facebook groups," Barefoot agreed. "They have not given you a great deal of permission to aggressively market to them. You need to tread with care."

Barefoot said he unjoined a Green group after feeling harassed by its operators.

"I joined because I had voted Green in the past, not because I was going to knock doors for him," Barefoot said.

"Fundraising aside, the thing to understand about these kinds of social networks is that the barrier to joining is incredibly low... you haven't even given up your e-mail address," he added.

"Five hundred volunteers who show up at your office are far more valuable than 10,000 friends on Facebook," Barefoot said.

'Decentralized and democratized'

Sifry, who has closely followed the use of technology for the past several U.S. presidential cycles, said both social networks and bloggers represent among the most fertile ground of the emerging American political landscape.

"When you friend somebody on Facebook, your personal social network knows about it instantly. When you put a bumper sticker on your car, it's more anonymous. Maybe your neighbours know, but that's about it," Sifry said.

Sifry agreed that Facebook friends are "loose affiliations," but pointed to how Barack Obama leveraged his online community as an example of how they can lead to stronger ties. A Facebook group called Students for Barack Obama grew to 20,000 members by January of 2007, and was able to hire a real-world staffer to help administrate the group.

"Then the Obama campaign hired that person," Sifry said. "So what on the surface looks like something really ephemeral can be, in the hands of a smart campaign, a very powerful tool for organizing supporters."

Sifry said these networks are also helping to bring about a much more profound change within American politics.

"What's new is that the control of the campaign is no longer just in the hands of the campaign," Sifry said. "Tens of thousand of activists are realizing that they can co-create the campaign. If you have a compelling message, all you have to do is put it up on YouTube."

"The political process is being decentralized and democratized," Sifry said. "It's messy. There's no question that Internet use is not evenly distributed across the population. But it is definitely being pulled out of hands of the traditional gatekeepers."

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