Brandon Taitt will settle in Monday night to watch the final debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney with his eyes on the television and fingers on his laptop keyboard.
Just as he did four years ago, he'll listen to the candidates and chat with his friends seated on the sofa nearby. This time, however, he'll be part of a much larger discussion -- online.
"Instead of the six or seven of us that were there, you're inviting hundreds of people, thousands of people to the conversation," said Taitt, 25, an Obama supporter and volunteer from Blaine. "It's almost like entering the 'spin room' as the debate is happening."
Social media is changing the way Americans view presidential debates. Reaction and commentary voters previously bantered about the living room have spilled onto the Internet in a real-time national conversation through Twitter, Facebook, tumblr blogs, live polling and other social sites. While the candidates spout positions on TV, the Internet swirls with instant fact checking, quips and short, sometimes-testy exchanges between friends and complete strangers.
For campaigns and party activists, the rapid-fire online chatter can be a boon for pushing information about their candidates directly to voters, posting links to documents and YouTube videos of speeches, or sponsoring posts on trending topics. But social media can also cause heartburn and, some would say, distractions through images and ideas gone viral (also known as memes), that capitalize on missteps.
"There's no forgiveness anymore for saying something silly," said Joseph Schultz, a Republican activist from Eagan. "It takes away a lot from actually talking about policy."
No longer watching
Just ask Big Bird. Or check out tumblr blog and Facebook page created seconds after Romney's "binders full of women" gaffe.
"People don't watch and react to debates in 2012 the way they used to," said Paul Levinson, a Fordham University professor and author of the book "New New Media," which examined social media and culture, including the 2008 election. "Now you're watching the debate and you have your smartphone, your iPad, your laptop in your hand and you're busy tweeting about what you're seeing and hearing."
Social media usage has exploded since the 2008 campaign, when it was more of a novelty. This time, both candidates have robust online presences across multiple social sites. Voters turn to social media to question facts and voice opinions.
A study released Friday by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project found 39 percent of American adults participated in political or civic activities through social media. Another Pew study found 11 percent of Americans watched the first presidential debate using dual screens, such as a computer or mobile device in addition to the television.
Twitter, a site that lets people share thoughts in 140-character bursts, reported 7.2 million tweets during the town hall-style debate Oct. 16 between Obama and Romney. Facebook counted 1.7 million mentions of Romney and 1.8 million mentions of Obama as the debate ended. Both sites offered data breaking down themes in users' comments. For instance, 28 percent of tweets sent during the debate were about the economy.
"You can kind of gauge what's being said," said Ben Golnik, a Minnesota GOP consultant. "It's a live focus group that you're not paying for."
Politics go pop
Some voters say the online cacophony of clever quips and passionate reactions deepens their interest in debates.
Macalester College student Leewana Thomas attended an on-campus gathering organized by the political science department for the first debate. When the momentum on television lagged, she said the Twitter stream projected on an adjacent screen that showed tweets tagged #macdebatewatch kept her from bailing. "It made it much more bearable and entertaining."
The online discussion has allowed the public to insert itself into the agendas and messages usually carefully crafted by the political and media elite, said Heather LaMarre, assistant professor of strategic communication at the University of Minnesota.
It also turns political moments into pop culture phenomena, prompting people to seek more information about the politics around Big Bird's recent popularity, for example.
"It's not so much that they're politically interested in the debate, but they are interested in knowing the conversation happening around it," she said. "If you have even a small percentage of the electorate becoming more engaged and more informed, that's good for democracy."
What effect the online activity has in the voting booth won't be known until after Election Day.
But voters like Britt Thelemann, 25, of St. Louis Park, plan to pay as much attention Monday to the online free-for-all as to the televised debate.
"It brings an element of fun to the debate," said Thelemann, a Romney supporter. "You can see exactly what people all over the country are thinking, right at the moment when someone says something."
Katie Humphrey • 612-673-4758