VoteTO: The real-time election that never was

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A snapshot of voteTO tweets on Twitter.

If you've ever been blindfolded, spun around a few times and told to take a whack at a piñata, you'll understand the slapdash way Toronto's mayoral candidates have attempted to use online tools to engage voters. Social media, having only recently taken the proverbial clothes off the back of politics, calls for elections to happen in real time.

With 70 per cent of Internet users logging into facebook daily, and one of the highest Twitter ratings of North American cities, e-savvy Torontonians have had full access to information surrounding candidate debates, sorted updates about events along the campaign trail, and opportunities to engage in ongoing conversations with mayoral hopefuls and voters at large. Given this free-flow of information and a deeply entrenched voteTO hashtag, why then has this race felt like a bad hangover that just won't go away?

It ain't about soliloquies, folks...

Whilst candidates have been busy campaigning around the city, telling stories, buying stories, or in the off-chance earning stories, their inability to move beyond monologues and create dialogues online has quite simply extinguished the possibility of sparking a civic debate worthy of honouring this big, world-class, beautifully diverse city.

Social media enthusiast, inaugural blogging instructor at the University of Toronto and long-time editor-in-chief of the Torontoist blog, David Topping, sets the stage best in noting that "technology doesn't prop up a boring candidate, it only underlines how boring that candidate actually is," and so it's arguably no surprise that "social media has not been a game changer" in this election. With nearly every candidate making this a race about "what was" instead of "what could be," how could forward-thinking mediums ever stand a chance? Whatever the case, one thing is clear, when a candidate uses a medium or network that is meant to be social as a one-way loudspeaker pumping out press releases, all is lost.

Understanding means standing under

Even more tragic still is that the capacity to leverage a changed political landscape via mediums such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube undoubtedly exists. Take for example Calgary's mayor-elect, Naheed Nenshi, who was swiftly dubbed the "Obama of Calgary" for his savvy use of social networking.

Nenshi has more followers and tweets than any Toronto Mayoral Candidate, and with 11, 276 likes on Facebook he dwarfs the publicly acknowledged fame of any of our candidates. Bearing in mind, of course, that Toronto has a more dense population and is likely the more tech-savvy of the two cities, and that makes Nenshi's accomplishments all the more profound. Like Obama, Nenshi brilliantly fed off the energy and imagination of young minds, capturing their spirit with his "purple army" motif.

On the topic of youth, Toronto mayoral hopefuls need not necessarily look for pie in the sky best practices; sometimes humility lies in the playground. And by playground I mean student politics. I was particularly captivated when my alma mater, McMaster University, elected Mary Koziol as president of the McMaster Students Union last year. Koziol's "Imagine More 2010" campaign is a digital strategists' dream -- clear, concise and connected. How tremendous would it be if Toronto's mayoral hopefuls devoured some humble pie and thought to take a page out of Koziol's book? Could it be that the audience candidates are so keen to inspire (youth) are worthy of doing the inspiring? The proof is in the pudding; err, maybe the pie in this case?

It may not happen nearly enough in Canada, but social media has the great potential to transcend the divisive nature of politics with the hope of bringing people together that truly want change for their communities. The kind of sweeping change that can arguably only happen at the municipal level, where voters can hold politicians accountable for election promises made, ensuring City Hall gets a well-deserved breath of fresh air.

So now, with a few hundred tweets, YouTube comments and Facebook likes away from a municipal election in Toronto, let's take a closer look at the candidates, the social networks and the voters to break down why this race has failed the real time test.

It's a numbers game, but...

Extrapolating the number of likes on Facebook or followers on Twitter or comments on YouTube alone does not a good mayor make. Though these tools are surely useful, see here and here as well as the charts above illustrating Twitter vote activity in the past month. It's all about content, content and more pure, meaningful, uninhibited content. Taking into account the chicken and egg conundrum, that's what fuels a followership worthy of oohs and aahs.

But what constitutes meaningful content and why have the candidates missed the mark? Well, that's a question better posed to mayor hopefuls and their teams. But, it would seem that a digital strategy pitching novel ideas that are off the radar and certainly on the minds of voters and Torontonians more generally is sure to pique interest. Yes, it's that simple. Just make news.

I'd bet money that if one of the top three candidates willingly used online tools to gauge voter perception about allowing non-citizens to vote, or the detriments of strategic voting or even the opportunities in ranked voting, the undertones of this race would have been something else entirely. It may not have changed the numbers in a significant way, but the numbers are forgettable if the city is transformed.

The Best and Worst of the Top 5 Candidates:

Rob Ford

Best: Content withstanding, Ford's youtube videos are always sure to entertain.

Worst: A website that screams red, white and blue. Turnoff. Following more real estate agents than average Torontonians on twitter. Fail. Making this an election about cynicism, in effect, thwarting any hope for civic engagement. Blasphemy.

George Smitherman

Best: Interactive website with clarity in design and delivery, highlights are "George on the Issues."

Worst: Inability to use social mediums as a feedback loop. Online communications are mostly used in the traditional command and control context, limiting growth and widespread appeal. Nobody likes to be told what to do, or think for that matter.

Joe Pantalone

Best: Arguably the only candidate that is unwavering in showing his candid support and love for Toronto. He also has the best handle on using Twitter to engage voters in one-to-one conversations.

Worst: Efforts seem scattered, difficult for voters to make sense of his platform and vision online. Offers an "Anything but Ford" option, but would be more worthwhile to focus on his own brand rather than being pegged as the alternative to another.

Rocco Rossi (Rescinded)

Best: Hit the nail on the head with strategically placed Google ads for "Toronto election" queries and still maintains a healthy facebook page activity.

Worst: Confusion caused by keeping Liberal Twitter handle and while taking a stance as an alternative to the career politician, willingly contributed to divisive political attacking nonetheless.

Sarah Thomson (Rescinded)

Best: Held her own during debates as the only female candidate, though that's likely the only reason she was awarded a great deal of media attention.

Worst: Website appears dated and out of touch. Facebook page does not exist, or may have been taken down post resignation.

Overall Winner...

So while nobody really got it right this time around, I'd say Joe Pantalone came pretty close. In his failure to dedicate too much time to social media, he actually succeeds in remaining true to his audience; voters whom he attests probably aren't online that much anyways. I can respect that and I'm sure come October 25th, voters will be lining up at the polls, showing him they do too.

Devinder Lamsar is a communications practitioner with a keenness for politics and the intersection of society, culture and religion. Her eclectic interests have taken her on an insightful journey in the public, private and non-profit sectors, sometimes intertwining, but her determination and thirst for knowledge relentless. Contact:dee.lamsar@gmail.com.

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