Organizers unveiled the first-ever smartphone app for a U.S. presidential inauguration, allowing users to track Barack Obama's swearing in, sign up for events and check maps for the closest toilets. The Presidential Inaugural Committee's debut application for iPhone and Android users provides a front-row seat for people not in Washington on January 21. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- In 2003, when Nicco Mele became the Internet operations director for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, there was no Facebook or Twitter, and the first iPod had only just been invented. With emails, blog entries and printout campaign posters, Mele and his team pioneered the use of social media and revolutionized political fundraising, eventually gathering about half of Dean’s funding through the Internet.


While the Dean campaign’s approach to online fundraising was ground-breaking in 2003 and 2004, political campaigns have continued to evolve alongside social media. In just 10 years, the look of American political campaigns has been utterly changed.


“It’s a completely different landscape,” said Mele, who now teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School as an adjunct lecturer in public policy. “On the Dean campaign in ’03, there was no YouTube. There was none of this stuff.”


A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that half of all Americans, and two-thirds of those who use the Internet, visit social networking websites. Social media giants like Facebook and Twitter, which had not yet launched during Dean’s campaign, have become a valuable tool for political campaigns. The Pew study found that 66 percent of Internet users have conducted either civil or political activity on social networks.


Pew’s findings became evident during the presidential debates, when social media feeds filled with commentary and memes (like binders and Big Bird) from the candidates’ declarations. The first debate generated 10 million tweets, and tweets from the second and third debates totaled at least 6.5 million each, according to the Twitter team. The most recent election cycle’s upwelling of social media suggests that the upcoming presidential inauguration will also see a marked increase in social networking and engagement.


“Before the elections, everybody said it would be the biggest social media election ever. It’ll be the biggest everything,” said social media professor at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, William Ward, also known as "DR4WARD." “It’ll probably be the biggest social media engagement of the Super Bowl coming up. It’s just becoming a part of how people get their news.”



What You’ll See On Your Screen


The 2013 inauguration marks several firsts for social media in the history of the special ceremony:

- This year, the Presidential Inaugural Committee created a Twitter account for the event, @ObamaInaugural, as well as a Facebook page, which have 37,000 and 49,000 followers respectively. The PIC recently released an app for smartphones with maps and other information about events happening during inauguration weekend.


- Not to be outdone, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, the group responsible for the swearing-in ceremonies of the president and vice president, also has a Twitter and Facebook page. Even Metro is getting on board with a special Twitter account just for the inauguration, @MetroInaug.


- A more extreme example of social media’s expanded significance is the social media butler, offered as part of the Madison Hotel’s $47,000 package, which includes a four-night stay in one of the hotel’s suites and a private car and driver. The “Dedicated Social Media Butler,” the Madison Hotel advertises, “will post on all of your accounts so you don’t have to fumble for your phone to catch that perfect Facebook profile picture.”


- In the days leading up to inauguration weekend, social media platforms of all sorts, from Facebook to YouTube, have already begun hosting and spreading content related to the inauguration: photographs of the stage, a video of the parade floats, even an official inauguration Spotify playlist.

























A Collective or Individual Experience?


While there will be several social media firsts this time around, Mele said that he believes the Inauguration may pose a unique challenge to social media users attempting to participate in a collective experience.


“I think of social media as profoundly individual. It’s individuals talking about their lives,” he said. “The Inauguration is a profoundly public event, and so it’s a little bit of a mismatch with social media. You’ll see people who are trying to claim it as part of their life through social media in terms of creating a shared public space or a shared public moment; that’s not something that I’ll see come out of it.”


In contrast, Anthony Rotolo, a social media professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, said he thinks that social media will succeed in creating a collective experience. “It’s going to be — as many events are now, whether the Super Bowl or inauguration — it’s going to be a national experience. People who are not there physically are there in spirit if they know someone, or are connected through their social network to someone who is.”


Connecting with official sources can also foster engagement, said Edward Erikson, a political communications strategist and University of Massachusetts Amherst professor. “It gives more and more people a window into that life and a window into that world that they wouldn’t really have access to otherwise,” Erikson said, using photographs of the Obama family as an example. “It’s a fun way to engage with the president; it’s a less political way, and more of a personal connection.”


A Social Future


Social media has its downsides, of course. Popular memes may distract users from true meaning, causing them to only remember Romney’s “binders full of women” comment from the second debate, for example. Social media also increases opportunity for “echo chambers” in some cases, where users only follow those with beliefs they share.


Ward, however, said he thinks we’re better with it than without it. “We’ve got more people who are communicating, connecting, sharing, more information, more resources being shared, more dialogue and exchange. Ultimately it’s a good thing, but it’s not without challenges.”


Access remains an issue for those without smartphones or Internet connection, but Rotolo said he believes this problem can — and should — be solved, to improve the social experience for all.


“We are a country of ideas and we can also solve that access problem,” he said. “It’s a democratic idea, right? The more people that get to participate, the better, and that should be the goal.”