Consider the mechanics of reaching voters/customers/users:
- Before the Internet, when distribution was the bottleneck, the optimal strategy was to maximize the available throughput. The best example is consumer packaged goods: companies like Proctor & Gamble built massive brands that were designed to appeal to the broadest swaths of population possible, maximizing the return on the effort and expense necessary to advertise and secure retail space. In the case of politics, this manifested as a push by the parties for broadly acceptable candidates who could appeal to the middle.
- Internet companies, on the other hand, have effectively infinite throughput. Amazon, for example, unbound by the need for shelf space and capitalizing on its transformation into an e-commerce platform, can plausibly bill itself as “The Everything Store”; products are found not through browsing but by search. This, by extension, means that products need to be wanted, not simply recognized — and the same goes for Google’s impact on politics.
- Facebook, as is its wont, supercharges these effects: instead of users “pulling” out content they are interested in, the algorithm “pushes” content based on its capability of driving engagement. And what drives engagement? Emotion and passion. That may mean a funny product video, or, in the case of politics, politicians who eschew the middle and run to the extremes.
Given the fundamentally different mechanics of Internet distribution, those Facebook numbers make a lot more sense: the extremes inspire passion which drives engagement; “broadly acceptable” doesn’t go anywhere.
This has profound implications for products and politics. First and foremost, it is fundamentally misguided to simply view “digital” as another channel that you layer on top of traditional marketing/campaign tactics like TV advertisements. In fact, products and politicians designed for the TV age — that is, meant to be palatable to the greatest number of people — are at a fundamental disadvantage on platforms like Facebook. The products and politicians that win inspire passion, stirring up a level of engagement that breaks through on a scale that far exceeds an ad buy. To put it another way, above I mentioned “paid” media and “earned” media; what matters on the Internet is “inspired” media.
The second implication is just as profound: campaigns — both for products and presidential candidates — used to be discrete events. This too sprang from the constraints of media: it takes a significant logistical effort to get a campaign off the ground. That, however, is not the case for “inspired” media: customers/voters are not passive recipients, they are active participants, and the speed with which a campaign can be created is breathtaking.