Twittering politically


6:11 pm - April 19th 2008

by Simon Barrow    


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Twitter is the thing we’re all supposed to be waffling about right now, ever since some Downing Street fixer hit on to letting everyone know the intimate manoeuvres of the PM in the US, plus the writer’s own progress through the complex world of comparative hot beverages and muffins.

It works like this. The PM’s meeja minders come up with a ‘new media’ communication wheeze which isn’t really that new at all. Then old media journos wake up in time simultaneously to pronounce it a desperate piece of wannabe PR (because the spinners are doing it) and the latest thing in cool (because, hey, we’ve finally caught up!).

This morning, BBC Radio 4 duly pronounced Twitter the new black – or the new skinny frappucino with wings to go, as we digerati types like to call it. Apparently. What followed was an effervescent but mostly content-free ‘investigative report’ by affable technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, saying that Facebook is so last year and everyone who’s anyone is now merrily Twittering away, though without much idea why.

In reality (if we dare call it that), the Twitter low-down is pretty simple. As a social networking tool it’s potentially a bit sad: the digital equivalent of celebrity shopping-spree texting. As an information tool, it can be quite helpful provided you know how to use and ration it. Like anything else, really.

If you’re a hack looking for a different angle on a story suffering from saturation coverage (such as Gordon Brown in America), subscribing to a Twitter might just give you an angle or a tiny snippet of info with which to meet the next deadline. Or it might make you feel like you’re ‘in the zone’ when in reality (that invidious concept again) you’re absolutely not – a harmless ego rush.

On the other hand, if you’re a campaigner, Twitter can be a bit more practical. During the recent Burma protests, a group of informed Twitters emerged who had some in situ contacts (unlike many reporters) and who were also monitoring both mainstream and specialist news outlets. The feed was updated regularly and proved very useful, with links to websites where more substantial data was being posted. It enabled people to target their solidarity actions and respond to actual developments on the ground at a time when the military junta was attempting a news blackout.

Meanwhile, the Today programme’s take on Twitter-type technology as a political tool veered between non-existent to a top-down one based on Downing Street scratching its backside and everyone else feeling an urge to itch pointlessly. There’s a bit more to it than that. But like all communications technology it depends on the resourcefulness and imagination of its users.

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About the author
Simon Barrow is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is co-director of Ekklesia, a think tank looking at issues of religion in society from a radical Christian perspective. He is a writer, theologian, consultant and commentator and also blogs at FaithInSociety
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Reader comments


That’s it Justin – now that Downing Street is on the case you’ll have to give it up as something that’s past its sell-by date!

Actually Twitter has the potential to transcend facebook, myspace et al.

To call it simply a social network is, imo, wrong. It’s a liberating news mechanism. Like all the best inventions it has been evolved by the users – and has greatly expanded beyond its original – what are you doing? – remit.

There are serious, pioneering people spending their time twittering. People who never took FB or others seriously. Clever people who see their twitter audience as incredibly valuable.

twitter, in its evolved state, is about overlapping spheres of influence, ultra-tight microblogging (You Look Nice Today was founded on twitter), and *real-time* networking. I have written about taking twitter too seriously, but the more I see of it I’m convinced of two things. One: it’s a lethal time-sink. Two: It’s genuinely revolutionary.

From a political POV, if you use twitter as a one-way self promoting tool, you’ll have very limited appeal.

Christ Twitter is sooo last year…why on earth everyone’s getting moist about it now I don’t know…

Twitter is as much a social network as Livejournal or YouTube is. All three have SN elements, but their main use is the application itself. I blog on LJ, but the networking elements allow me to meet new people (three girlfriends including one fiancée, so that worked well) as well.

YouTube allows me to upload videos and post them where I like. But I know of people that use it as a videoblogging social network. Twitter allows me to post short snippets of text from anywhere I can get a mobile signal, so I most regularly use it when I’m travelling somewhere. But I also use it to liveblog stuff I’m watching on TV and direct text contacts. I then port my tweets to Facebook as status and daily digests to my blog. If I were a politician using it I’d have them display dynamically on my main website as well, no one need know I’m using Twitter if I don’t want them to.

It’s a web application with some bolted on SN features, a useful source of info and contacts, but it’s main uses aren’t the site itself, it’s the way you can use the application. Still playing around with it, but agree with Aaron, it’s a timesink, it’s brilliant, but the journalists have completely missed the point.

MatGB – is that three girlfriends and a fiancee? Otherwise, if that’s three ex-girlfriends, then my question is: why??.

Aaron – I’m sure there are lots of people who take Twitter seriously, but I think FB has far more political potential. It just takes a lot of time and effort, which politicians don’t necessarily want to get involved in.

Three including. You know the fiancée already, one of the others is going to be best person at our wedding, the other is only an ex because I moved…

Some politicians are making the effort to make FB (and MySpace) useful—my old (Torbay) MP, found ME on MySpace, I still have the email saved as at the time it was quite surprising, now of course I have several MP “friends”, but that’s partially through getting involed through SNs. You get out of it what you put in, it’s noticeable that the Lib Dems, including Clegg, are very strong on FB, and Featherstone is playing with Twitter. Worth noting that I first got back involved in electoral politics because Adrian (Torbay and thus at the time my MP) found and commented on my blog.

The web can, and should be, a great tool for democracy. I give Facebook’s walled garden a few years before it’s replaced, but services like Twitter that can bolt on and interoperate anywhere have much bigger legs.

Leon,

So what’s this year’s big thing, then? Pownce? twitter certainly hasn’t slowed. It broke at SXSW last year, and is breaching the mainstream now.

Sunny,

facebook?

Political potential? V. limited. It’s sporadic. Too many “groups” no-one cares about. Too many silly apps, people are getting pissed off at being constantly spammed – beyond a contacts book (which it’s excellent at), I don’t use it. Also, if David Cameron tries to vampire bite me one more time, I swear I’ll…

MatGB

Yeah, of course twitter is a SN in the literal sense. But it works in such a different way, it’s hard to compare it to landing-page based SNs. It’s got as much more in common with traditional IMs – although of course feeds are hosted on a landing page, there is little in the way of personalisation, info, or the ability to create groups.

As I said, it’s about overlapping spheres of influence, which if you’ve never used twitter, you’d struggle to appreciate.

MatGB,

Yeah, facebook is too controlled, and Zuckerberg is too shifty.

(Does what happens in the Facebook stay in the Facebook?)

Facebook is great for arranging meetings and stuff with people you already know; twitter I use mainly for updating my facebook status when I’m at work.

I’m old school. I loves my Livejournal. It’s a blog and a social networking tool in one!

Aaron, I do share the privacy concerns over FB—that video is pretty good, if a little hyperbolic, which is why I’m careful about what info I put on there (not too carefuly, it’s all public domain stuff), but overall I do like it. They’ve done a lot to fix the application spam problem, so now it’s really not a problem as long as you block the crap, and they’ve changed the rules about what apps can do re invites as well.

Having said that though, it does have a lot of potential for parties and campaigning organisations to keep in touch with people and organise existing supporters and activists—James Graham has been doing a fair bit with Unlock Democracy stuff, I first found out about Vote Match through Facebook, pretty sure that’s where a lot of the early usage stuff came from. Plus a bunch of the stuff I’ve got involved with with the Lib Dems was organised through Facebook, went to the House for a number of meetings organises througha Facebook group while I was in London, most of those people wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

Combine the contacts list with the event organising and group potential, and you’ve got a powerful tool. That people aren’t too sure how to use it best as yet and some people are put off using it are issues, but I’ve said a number of times that I only give FB a few years before something better comes along, probably a distributed series of apps that interoperate around a central platform.

And I think we agree about Twitter and its uses.


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