It’s difficult to be divided when we are flung so much together.
Despite the fact that I live in Texas—and we all knew which way Texas was voting this year—I still went to the polls, in the passion of civic duty. And there I stood in line for two hours. That was because seven machines for my neighborhood was not nearly enough; to make things worse, one of those machines went down while I was waiting. In order to fix the machine they had to turn them all off, change out the power source on the broken one, and set them all up again.
(If I may digress for a moment: yes, you read that right. The most technologically advanced society in the world and the home of modern democracy runs its elections on a system that works just like Christmas tree lights. One goes out, they all go.)
Anyway, standing in line for two hours, I got to know my neighbors. I met, for example, a fascinating man who had both hitchhiked and sailed around the world. Not what I was initially expecting when the guy in cowboy boots and an outdoorsman shirt struck up a conversation.
People of all ages, backgrounds, and beliefs were standing in line at the public library down the road from my house. Many jokes were made, mostly at the expense of politicians. It was a pretty day and there was a real camaraderie. During the wait, one woman fainted; a stranger sprung into action, getting her a chair and calling an ambulance. I have no idea how everyone else in line was voting, but I think we all felt we were on the same side.
That’s actually how I feel at every election, though it was stronger this time because I was waiting for so long. This time, the feeling stayed with me for the rest of the day. And I think that’s because this same mood permeated social media.
Sure, who you were voting for was much more clear online. But it was also just a simple shared experience. Seventy-four percent of us saw voting activity from our peers online. Canvas was busy making voting buttons that were equal parts get out the vote and political satire. Harry Potter fans and the Vlogbrothers teamed up to get out the vote. We were even treated to vote porn, thanks to our trusty camera phones—though that turned out to be illegal in many states.
The country’s Redditor in Chief, President Barack Obama posted a plea on r/politics, asking people to vote. However, the president, like a total n00b, editorialized in the title of his post. Subreddit rules stress that titles should be neutral. So the post was removed.
In the United States, no man is above the law. And that goes double for the Internet.
Explaining the deletion, a mod wrote, “When you submit posts, please for the love of humanity, do not editorialize the title. Others report the submission, then we are forced to take it down.”
Given the somewhat extraordinary circumstances, however, mods granted the leader of the free world a reprieve and restored the post, which ultimately received 82,308 upvotes and 79,748 down votes.
The moral of the story: want a shortcut to more Reddit Karma without posting porn? All you need to do is get elected president.
In the real world, we saw major legal changes as a result of this election cycle. Two states legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Four states passed gay marriage. While gay marriage is legal already in other states, the recent referenda in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, and Washington were the first time that such measures have passed by direct vote of the people.
The Twitterverse largely responded with ecstatic support. A Topsy search reveals that the anti-gay marriage hashtag #1m1w has been used less than 1,000 times. By contrast, popular gay vlogger Tyler Oakley’s tweet celebrating the passage in Maine received 1,933 retweets.
It’s commonplace to say that the Internet skews liberal. But I don’t think that’s exactly true.
As Obama took the election, a 13-month-old post of Romney’s went suddenly viral. It said, “If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today.”
There’s actually plenty of support online for conservative beliefs and opinions on policy. And plenty of opposition to Obama. If Obama does better than Romney online, it’s because he’s better at the Internet, not because he’s liberal. Not only is he posting on Reddit to get out the vote, he dominated Tumblr on election night, collecting 75,000 mentions—as compared to 35,000 mentions for Romney.
The Internet appears liberal because a lot of the social wedge issues that have dominated conservative rhetoric in the last two decades, such as the “defense of marriage,” don’t carry a whole lot of currency online.
That is the result of a confluence of many factors, of course. The Internet’s demographics (young, white, educated, wealthy) tend toward social progressivism. Psychographically, the most vocal Internet users are early adopters by definition.
But demographics and psychographics don’t fully explain why those social wedge issues don’t carry a lot of weight online. I’d argue this actually comes more from the way the Internet has of throwing us all together.
We experience voting as something we do together. Presidents mingle right there with the rest of us on Reddit. We find a gay vlogger celebrating “loving, committed relationships” in our Twitter feeds because someone we follow follows someone else who follows Tyler Oakley.
This was the most polarized election in living memory, and while I think differences of opinion are good, political enmity is not. That polarization is less a function of the campaigns than the campaigns as a reflection of our society.
Tuesday’s experience online, however, indicated to me that times, they are a-changin’. Because of the Internet, I think we’ll look back at the 2012 presidential election as the turning point, the darkest moment before the dawn. It may take us time to see, but I think we are marching into a more harmonious future.