The first presidential debate lit up social networks Wednesday night, even staggering Twitter throughout the one-and-a-half-hour debate.
President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney faced off in their first debate before the presidential election next month. And it wasn't just a big night for the two candidates. It also was a big night for the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google+ .
While social networks played a role in the 2008 presidential election, they've taken an even bigger part this year.
That's not surprising since, for instance, Facebook had 100 million monthly users in 2008 and today it has 955 million. Using social networks is an effective way to send a single message out to potentially millions of eyeballs.
People are increasingly turning to social networks to share their opinions on the candidates and the issues. However, the individual campaigns also are using Facebook and Twitter, which set up a dedicated page for the debate.
So when it came time for the first debate to air, users split their focus between watching the verbal sparring and tweeting their reactions with criticism, cheers and jokes.
Twitter's Government and Politics team noted early on that tweets about the debate were coming in fast and furiously. "We're only minutes into the event and have already passed 2 million Tweets about this debate over the past 24 hours. #debates," tweeted @gov.
The heavy load on Twitter began well before the debate kicked off. Twitter noted, "In the last 24 hours there have now been twice as many Tweets about tonight's debate than there were about all of the #debates in 2008."
The heavy load took its toll on the microblogging site.
Twitter's first noticeable stumble came just after 9:30 when the site didn't come up for some users for about seven minutes. It came back but was in trouble again just before 10 p.m. ET but the site struggled with slow load times and partially loaded pages off and on through at least 11 p.m.
Despite Twitter's efforts to keep up with the onslaught of usage, the site noted that one of the most-tweeted moments of the debate came when Romney said he loves Big Bird but would cut funding to PBS.
Shortly after, Twitter reported there were 17,000 tweets per minute for "Big Bird" and 10,000 tweets per minute for "PBS."
Facebook wasn't being left out of it, either. Images of Sesame Street's Big Bird holding a sign that reads, "Will work for food" quickly began showing up on the social network.
Big Bird also showed up in the running list of debate-related topics, such as #debates, Jim Lehrer and #PresidentialDebate2012, that began appearing in Twitter's top 10 trending topics hours before the debate even began.
Both the Obama and the Romney campaigns were trying to get as much play on the social networks as possible. Both political camps set up Web sites that promoted tweets and potential social network postings, offering suggestions for what users could post and retweet.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is email@example.com.