January 31st, 2011
New Online Politics 101 chapter
Twitter is the newest significant weapon in the online politics arsenal: while it was a very limited arena as recently as the 2008 elections (Barack Obama had all of 50,000 followers by Election Day!), it’s exploded in popularity since. Though the two sites are often lumped together in the popular mind, Twitter isn’t quite a mass medium in the same way Facebook has become — it’s more of a channel to reach the “network influentials,” since it’s particularly popular with bloggers, journalists and activists. In fact, a very high percentage of Twitter profiles people create are abandoned within months, making it a tool with more of a specialized following.
Functionally, Twitter is the very short equivalent of blogging, with a dash of social networking thrown in: individual Twitter messages (“tweets”) are limited to 140 characters in length, and people generally have to choose to “follow” someone’s Twitter feed in order to see their updates. As with Facebook, essentially anyone or any organization can create a Twitter feed, but in some sense Twitter lacks the reciprocal nature of a true social network — plenty of feeds have thousands of followers but follow far fewer people in return themselves (do you think that Ashton Kutcher really pays attention to what you say?).
What to Tweet?
A common perception of Twitter is that it’s an inherently trivial medium — its often spoken of as a way to tell the world what you had for breakfast. But in practice, normal people who fill Twitter’s “airwaves” with self-indulgent drivel generally don’t pick up much of a following (for celebrities, that’s unfortunately NOT so true). In fact, perhaps the most common single use of Twitter is to spread links to blog posts, videos, news articles and other pieces of in-depth content, making the 140-character limit less of an issue. Organizations and news publications in particular tend to use Twitter much like an RSS feed, simply listing each new piece of content as it comes out.
In general, as in so many other parts of the online advocacy space, readers aren’t likely to pay much attention to you unless you have some kind of value to offer them. People who tweet too much trivia too often can find their followers dropping off in droves, so be sure to pay attention to the KIND of information you distribute. Not every tweet needs to be a haiku-like gem of wisdom, but it rarely hurts to think for at least a minute or two about your ultimate communications goals before messaging the world. How often people Tweet varies immensely — I have friends who’ve sent out 10 or 20 times more messages over time than I have, for instance. It really depends on what you have to say and the kind of following you have.
Building a Following
Once you’ve begun to build a base of content on Twitter, the next consideration is to build that following. Unfortunately, short of being mentioned in the Twitter feed of someone famous, finding an audience typically takes time. Start by following the people you want to follow you — your peers, political activists, bloggers, journalists, etc., since at least some of them will follow you back right away. Once they do so, you have the opportunity to reach them — and potentially, their own audiences.
Engaging the Community and Connecting with Prominent Voices
The most effective way to build your following over time is to actively engage the Twitter community, a process that can take several forms. The most straightforward is to use an “@reply,” in which you reference another Twitterer in your own post (i.e., “@epolitics why don’t you just shut up about this crap”). You can use @replies to hold a back-and-forth conversation with someone, plus they’re a good way to get the attention of someone with whom you’d like to connect (Twitter.com and other Twitter-management tools typically make it very easy to see who’s @replied you).
@replies also play a role in “retweeting,” which is the forwarding of someone else’s posts to your own followers. Retweets are one of the signature characteristics of the ongoing Twitter conversation, since they let people provide value to their readers without having to write new content themselves. Plus, retweeting someone more prominent than you can be a good way to come to his or her attention, particularly if you use the old-school “RT @reply” method rather than Twitter’s newer built-in retweet function (RT’ing a tweet as an @reply also lets you add a comment, another valuable feature).
Besides RT’s, the other common bit of Twitter shorthand you’ll commonly encounter is a “hashtag,” a word or abbreviation preceded by the “#” sign. Twitterers use hashtags to refer to a topic that’s being discussed by several people at once, for instance an issue, event or public figure, and people often use Twitter’s search function to follow the extended discussion around a particular tag. This tendency makes hashtags a valuable way to gain exposure to new followers and to find yourself retweeted, assuming of course that you have something interesting to say. Some websites attempt to keep track of common hashtags, but the easiest way to find the terms in general use is to use a Twitter search to note the terms actively employed in the discussion around an issue.
Engaging the Twitter community is obviously time-consuming, since you have to pay attention to what many different people are saying — you can’t participate in the conversation unless you’re actually listening. Besides hashtags, dedicated Twitter-management tools like Hootsuite and TweetDeck let you break the feeds you’re following down into various groups by their characteristics, for instance based on topics they cover, and they also tend to speed up the process of posting content vs going through Twitter.com itself. A good tool will typically allow you to pre-schedule Tweets for publishing, something that’s particularly handy if you have content that needs to go out over the weekend.
Besides public conversations, you can also “Direct Message” someone behind the scenes if you are following each other reciprocally, and I’ve known people who’ve been able to connect with a blogger or reporter via DM whom they’d never been able to reach via email.
Twitter has given rise to an impressive array of different tactics and practices in its short time on Earth. “Live-Tweeting” an event involves covering it comprehensively as it happens, and social media-friendly conferences and seminars typically promote the use of certain hashtags to facilitate the process. Activists or groups can also pre-arrange TweetChats, which are public discussions at a particular time and around a particular hashtag. Many people pay attention to the hashtags that are “trending” on Twitter, i.e., becoming widely discussed, and the goal of a TweetChat or live-tweeting is often to either encourage a topic to trend or to ride the wave of a subject that’s moving up the popularity ladder. Finally, a Twitter interview can be an interesting way to run a one-on-one public conversation, though it practice it can feel like competitive poetry or a freestyle rap showdown — i.e., a public balancing act on a very narrow wire.
Twitter and Cell Phones
A common question about Twitter: why the 140-character limit? The answer is cell phones — Twitter is designed to be used like SMS text messages, making it one of the few online tools that’s commonly and easily used on handheld devices. Some organizers have taken advantage of this fact to use Twitter to help communicate with and ultimately rally communities in which cell phones are more common than access to the traditional internet. Others have used the Twitter/phone connection for on-the-spot coverage of rallies, protests and other events, particularly as a means to distribute photos and videos shot with their phones. This last feature has been particularly important in street protests in countries around the world.
Twitter as an Amplifier
One of the fascinating developments in the online politics arena after the 2008 election was the extent to which conservatives and Republicans took to Twitter, leading some observers to claim that Democrats were losing the Twitter war. In response, progressive activists such as my friend Alan Rosenblatt actively began to try to create an echo-chamber effect on the Left, in part through the use of hashtags like “#p2″ to counter the Republican “#tcot” (“Top Conservatives On Twitter”). Alan’s also had great success helping his issue-expert colleagues at the Center for American Progress amplify their individual voices — he’s helped get them on Twitter in the first place and then retweets their content out over a much larger network. Other groups such as Progressive Congress News are similarly trying to use Twitter to raise the profile of content that’s otherwise at risk of getting buried, something that I suspect we’re going to see much more of in advocacy campaigns to come.
More Ways to Stumble
A note of caution: electoral campaigns in particular need to be careful to distinguish between a candidate or officeholder’s Twitter feed and one updated by staff, since Twitter as a community tends to value authenticity. If Twitterers find out that a “candidate’s voice” is not actually his own, the campaign’s credibility can take a hit. Campaigns can use both approaches in a single feed if it’s clear whose voice is speaking at any given time, and can even turn a relatively rare candidate appearance on his or her own feed into an event to promote. Another consideration for electoral campaigns: some politicians have taken to Twitter like a duck to water, but the results of unfiltered Twitter-posting can be dangerous to a political reputation (plenty of room for a stupid mistake in 140 characters).
One final thing to remember: once a campaign has a Twitter feed, people will expect to be able to follow it and interact with the author(s). Don’t start a feed only to let it die of neglect.