Author: Kirsten A. Foot, Steven M. Schneider
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: December 2007
In just over a decade, the political campaign Web site has evolved from an optional information supplement to an essential element of campaign strategy. Often, a campaign's Web site is no longer one of many places where citizens can get information about the candidate, but rather the central hub from which voters can access television and radio advertisements, press releases, campaign calendars, yard signs, and news stories about the campaign. Sadly, political communication research has struggled to keep up with this development. A number of studies of Internet campaigning have been published in recent years, but this work has tended to be sporadic, lacking any theoretical or methodological consensus that would qualify it as a unified body of research. Web Campaigning by Kirsten Foot and Steven Schneider of the University of Washington and the SUNY Institute of Technology, respectively, is an admirable attempt to begin rectifying this limitation. This book offers an extensive overview of how political campaigns in the United States have used Web sites to achieve their strategic goals.
Web Campaigning employs the authors' technique of "Web sphere analysis," a mixed-methods approach that combines quantitative content analysis of Web sites with data from focus group and survey interviews with Web users and campaign professionals. A Web sphere is defined as "a set of dynamically defined, digital resources spanning multiple Web sites deemed relevant or related to a central event, concept, or theme" (27). In the context of political campaigns, the Web sphere constitutes all Web sites that include content directly related to the campaign. Thus, the approach is flexible enough to account for the reality that online campaigning extends beyond candidate Web sites to sites established by political parties, advocacy groups, individuals, and even governmental entities. At the same time, the Web sphere is demarked in such a way that the focus is on the campaign itself, excluding online advocacy that has only a tangential relationship to the campaign. Web sphere analysis potentially offers researchers a template for studying Internet content in non-political contexts, although the authors do not explore that potential in this book.
The value of this book is largely as a descriptive analysis of how Internet campaigning has evolved from the U.S. mid-term elections of 1998, the first in which most campaigns had a significant Web presence, through the elections of 2004. As explained in a methodological appendix, the sample of Web sites, especially for the 2002 elections, is extensive and represents an appropriately stratified sample from the universe of Web sites produced in each election cycle. It is fair to say that few, if any, previous academic studies have examined this many Web sites or chosen the sites to be analyzed in such a scientific manner. The authors admit that their methodology evolved between each campaign, and the 1998 data is actually borrowed from other scholars (Democracy online project, 1999; Harpham, 1999; Kamarck, 1999). However, the methodological shifts are slight enough that their analysis of general trends between election cycles seems to be accurate.
Through their analysis, Foot and Schneider identify four broad purposes of Web campaigning: informing, involving, connecting, and mobilizing. Early campaign Web sites were used primarily to inform visitors about the candidate, especially his or her issue positions, and this function is still the most commonly used. However, the analysis presented in this book indicates that Web sites are increasingly used to involve, connect, and mobilize visitors in addition to informing. Thus, while campaign Web sites were viewed by many early observers as a form of virtual brochure, simply making information more accessible to voters, more recent campaigns have better exploited the interactive nature of the Internet to make their Web sites more than just another source of candidate information.
Future scholars will need to further refine Foot and Schneider's categories. For example, the distinction between the connecting and mobilizing functions is not always entirely clear. As political activism increasingly takes place in the online world, Web site features designed to connect a candidate's supporters with each other can also be seen as a form of mobilization. Foot and Schneider give the example of "Web rings" (130), which allow supporters of a candidate to easily link their unofficial candidate Web sites with other sites supporting the candidate. This Web feature facilitates connections between supporters, but it also encourages supporters to mobilize by creating original Web content supporting the candidate, thus blurring the distinction between these Web practices. Additionally, the rapid evolution of Web campaigning so far indicates that any descriptive categories will need refining as each campaign cycle brings innovative uses of the Internet. Indeed, it is possible that some aspects of the analysis were already obsolete by the 2006 mid-term elections. However, Web Campaigning represents a major achievement in that scholars of political communication now have a guiding typology for analyzing how campaigns use the Internet. As a form of direct-to-voter message, campaign Web sites are largely comparable to the older communication genre of the political advertisement. Political advertising research has traditionally been guided by dichotomies such as positive vs. negative or issue vs. image ads, and these categories have been extremely useful, if occasionally problematic, in researchers' attempts to understand the content and effects of political ads. Web sites include too much varied information to fit the existing typologies used to categorize other campaign messages, yet until now researchers have lacked an alternative that allowed them to meaningfully compare sites from different campaigns and different election cycles.
In addition to the wealth of information the book provides about Web site content, the authors use quotations from focus group participants to help readers understand how Web users and campaign professionals view that content. Perhaps the most interesting use of focus group data is in the authors' analyses of the tensions that arise in Web campaigning. For example, Lynn Reed, campaign manager for 2000 presidential candidate Bill Bradley, argues in an interview with the authors that the practice of involving campaign supporters by providing them with an online discussion board goes against the conventional wisdom that campaigns need to carefully control all messages they present to the public. She says,
If there is a glaring weak spot in this book, it is the penultimate chapter, in which the authors use survey data from Web content producers and users to determine whether patterns exist that explain why certain campaigns choose to use certain online strategies while others do not. It is certainly commendable that the authors attempted to go beyond basic description in order to better explain the use of the Internet in campaigns. Unfortunately, the survey of Web producers that provides the basis for much of this analysis was conducted only after the 2002 election and had a response rate of only 10 percent. Therefore, it represents only a small, potentially non-representative sample of Web producers from only one election cycle. These limitations do not make the data completely invalid, but they certainly lack generalizability, especially in comparison with the authors' very scientific content analysis data. An additional statistical analysis examines the ability of variables related to the campaigns themselves (such as the office sought, incumbency, and the race's competitiveness) to predict the use of informing, involving, connecting, and mobilizing. Although this analysis is more methodologically sound, the results indicate that the variables they considered account for very little variation in the use of Web campaign practices. This finding, which implies that there is little discernable pattern to which campaigns use which practices, is academically interesting, but the regression analysis feels out of place in a book that is otherwise accessible to a non-academic audience. The book as a whole would feel more cohesive if the statistical analyses had been relegated to an appendix or published elsewhere.
In addition to the book itself, Foot and Schneider have developed a publicly available companion Web site. Along with most of the book's text, the Web site includes screenshots of the campaign sites referenced in the text. The screenshots greatly enhance the reader's understanding of the analysis, begging the question of why they did not include any screenshots in the book itself. Although the Web sites referenced are extensively footnoted, this only helps if the reader is able and willing to remain online while reading the book, taking time to look up archived sites as they are referenced. Instead, Web-savvy readers are best served by reading the text online, where they have ready access to the archived Web sites as they are referenced. Inclusion of some screenshots in the book would have given potential readers an incentive to buy the book rather than reading it online for free and would also have livened up what is, at times, a rather dry text.
These minor criticisms do not diminish the fact that Foot and Schneider offer a substantial contribution to scholarly understanding of U.S. campaign Web sites. This extensive and detailed snapshot of Internet campaigning's evolution to this point represents an excellent starting point for future research. Future scholars should build on this foundation by refining Foot and Schneider's typologies, by examining specific rhetorical devises used on campaign Web sites in more depth, and by exploring the effects that various Web campaign strategies have on their audiences.
Democracy online project. (1999). Online campaigning: A primer. Washington, DC: Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University.
Harpham, E. J. (1999). Going on-line: The 1998 Congressional campaign. Atlanta: American Political Science Association.
Kamarck, E. C. (1999). Campaigning on the Internet in the elections of 1998. In E. C. Kamarck and J. S. Nye (Eds.), Democracy.com?: Governance in a networked world. Hollis, NH: Hollis Publishing.
Scott Dunn (M.A., Virginia Tech) is a Ph.D. student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He researches the effects of political media coverage on citizen decision making. He is especially interested in new media and their effects on political processes. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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