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How The Internet Learned To Love Hillary Clinton

The media hated the First Lady and the candidate, but the Secretary of State is winning the social web. The first meme president?

Day in and day out, Hillary Clinton is winning the Internet.

The former First Lady and Senator and current Secretary of State has undergone a dramatic public transformation over the past year, one driven in part by her strong handling of a generally popular job, and in part by an unpredictable factor: The Internet has finally fallen in love with her.

Howard Dean was the hero of the rowdy, anti-war blogs in 2004. Barack Obama was the purest icon of the stylized, one-way hero-worshipping web of 2008. Now Clinton is the star of the messy, recursive, and playful ascendant social web. More blunt force than clever package, with her public stumbles and imperfections hanging out for all to see, she’s a fractured, engaging character — a perfect fit for a media universe dominated by Twitter and Facebook.

There's the no-nonsense Hillary – the one who wears dark glasses while typing away on her BlackBerry, as in the photo that the Texts From Hillary meme is centered around. But there's also the beer-swilling, dancing in Colombia Hillary. Further down her timeline there's the hippie-ish, happy, vintage Hillary. Photos of all – not just one – of these states of Clinton have gone viral on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook.

And former Clinton campaign aides say there was internal discussion of plugging Clinton directly into the nascent social media in 2008, giving her a Twitter account and letting her be as warm, smart, and funny in public as her friends — dismayed by her portrayal as alternately shrill and robotic — always said she was in private. Some aides still think it could have changed the game.

"I think social media could have helped her in 2008. It would have provided a more powerful outlet for her supporters," said Judd Legum, Clinton’s research director that year and now the chief of the liberal media outlet ThinkProgress and author of its giant Twitter account.

Then, he said, social media could have leveled the media playing field.

"The people who are running the sites in the progressive and liberal blogosphere favored Obama. Her supporters would have had more of a voice,” he said.

"Had social media been around to the degree that it has evolved today, it would have allowed us to have shown a little more of Hillary and we would not have relied as much on traditional media outlets," said Phil Singer, a top Clinton press aide in 2008. "People would have seen her without out the filter in the press."

Now, the hobbled frontrunner of 2008 is the most popular official in the Obama Administration, and the darling of the national media. Consider some recent newspaper headlines about Clinton. There was "Queen Of Cool," an April 2012 Op-Ed by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times. And MSNBC, the same network that so readily slammed her in '08, featured a segment that same week in which anchors excitedly called Clinton "the Secretary of Cool."

There are three key factors in Clinton’s new sky-high popularity — new Gallup poll numbers show her approval rating at 66% — and her emergence as an online celebrity.

For one, “she isn't caught up in the day to day mudslinging," says David Rothkopf, a former Clinton Administration foreign policy official who's now CEO of Foreign Policy. "She's popular, but doesn't have the headwinds of campaigning."

"She's also really successful at her job. She's a work horse, not a show horse," he adds. "She's the most powerful woman in the world, and she's doing her job with a sense of humor and intelligence.

The second is a set of savvy decisions around social media itself. Under Clinton's watch, the State Department has used Twitter and Facebook extensively, most notably by embracing activists' use of these social networks during the Arab Spring protests, and stating American policy on official Twitter feeds. Clinton's senior advisor Alec Ross, has been a kind of evangelist of a free and open Internet across the globe – and it's made Clinton look good.

On the home front, she’s also gone big with topics that are hot online, such as bullying, with her having made an "It Gets Better" video.

View this video on YouTube

But perhaps the central reason for Clinton’s unlikely Internet celebrity is her identity itself. In 2008, Internet users were happy to read a few favorite sites or blogs, direct channels for Barack Obama’s abstract, powerful, and cleverly-packaged message of "Change." Now the web is a hot mess, and Clinton's complex, multi-faceted personality – both tough and feminine, both serious and funny – make her a good fit for the meme-loving masses.

Stacy Lambe, who started the Texts From Hillary tumblr (and who is now an editor at BuzzFeed), said the meme was a hit because it so clearly reflected one of Clinton’s many facets.

"There's always been an element of cool but it wasn't really recognized," Lambe says.

And Clinton seems to enjoy, and understand, her online fame. When Lambe and his Texts From Hillary co-creator went to meet Clinton, he said, she proposed they pose for a picture of them texting one another. She also displayed, he said, unerring instincts for the powerful meme: "The Ryan Gosling post was her favorite,” he said.