S​omething is about to happen in Boston politics that has never happened before: Social media platforms & digital communications techniques will play a major role in the city's hotly contested race for mayor. Twenty years ago, when a Hyde Park city councilor named Tom Menino became mayor, Boston's communications landscape bore little resemblance to what the city's mayoral candidates will wade into in the months ahead. The changes in the traditional media scene – fewer reporters, less space, smaller audiences – have been well documented. What's more interesting is the fact that most of the modern tools and channels that have become so important in public affairs and community relations programs simply did not exist the last time the mayor's seat was up for grabs. None of these tools and technologies has ever played a significant role in a mayoral campaign here because Menino has never faced a serious, well-financed challenge where they could be deployed with effect.

  • The World Wide Web first became available as a free public resource in 1993 – the same year Menino became mayor. (The first-ever web site was launched in 1991.)
  • Mark Zuckerberg created what would later become known as Facebook in 2004.
  • YouTube launched in 2005.
  • Twitter was invented in 2006.
  • It's hard to believe, but the mobile devices that are so ubiquitous today are also a 21st century consumer phenomenon. The first generation iPhone, for example, was released in 2007.
  • The first iPad was released in 2010.
  • The ability to use cable television zones to segment markets and deliver spot ads and messages customized by target audience, demographics, geography and interests is a service that only became efficient within the last decade.

Evidence that new day dawning can be found in the search engine results driven by the candidates' web sites, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. There's even a website ranking the social media footprint of the candidates, although the authors of the site are anonymous, which makes their credibility suspect. Known as a shoe leather town when it comes to politics, the conventional wisdom has been that a collection of tribes and king makers bestow their blessings on favored candidates and, upon so doing, provide campaign contributions along with grizzled, cigar-chomping operatives who handle old-fashioned voter identification and activation duties on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. But Boston's potential voters have changed a great deal in the past two decades. They're younger (median age 32); a majority non-white (53%); and increasingly foreign-born (27%). It's a safe bet to assume that voters' communication habits and preferences have changed as well. Nielsen says Bostonians are watching less live TV and using iPads and smart phones more often to access information and entertainment. How will online communications strategies shape Boston's first big political campaign of the 21st century? We shall see. When it comes to modern campaigns, time has essentially stood still here. Until now.