Monday, January 17, 2011

Twitter important, say people on Twitter

Following a Power Play segment last week on Twitter, there's a The Hill Times piece today trumpeting the communications tool as "the next frontier" of politics.

Forgive me for lapsing into cantankerous old man mode, but I think the Twitter hype is getting ahead of itself.

Is it an important and useful communications tool? Absolutely. I get much of my news from Twitter, primarily as news organizations and people I follow share links to media coverage. (Note: like blogs, this is Twitter amplifying MSM coverage, not creating original journalism).

I also follow many journalists, politicians, politicos and others. It provides an interesting perspective into the behind the scenes, the personalizing superficial (I mean that in a good, humanizing way), and an opportunity to interact. I've debated coverage with journalists, and policy with cabinet ministers. I like to think the debate improves us all.

I agree when the article says Twitter has the potential to influence the tenor of media coverage, and from there the public. It's the same blogs, influential by degrees of separation. But I wouldn't go further than that.

I was amused by the subhead on the The Hill Times article: Twitter could determine electability and influence next federal campaign, say leading political twitterers. That about sums it up. People on Twitter say Twitter is important. Let's not forget that 95 per cent of the population has no idea what Twitter is.

Also, it's important to look at your audience. I currently have 1,233 followers on Twitter. They're made up primarily of fellow Liberal partisans, partisans of other assorted stripes, Ottawa watchers, hill journos, and some politicians. I could probably count the number of undecided voters following me on one hand. So I can tweet for the Liberal cause until I'm blue in the face; I'm not changing anyone's mind.

It's the selection-bias of Twitter that limits its utility. This example from the article is meant to argue for Twitter, but really it confirms its limitations:
Ms. O'Malley, who has 6,271 followers on Twitter, said she started following hashtags and local media in the ridings affected by this past November's byelections.

"It really did help inform me. I'm not in Winnipeg North; I'm not even in friggin' Vaughan. It gave me the ability to see what all sides were saying....Imagine that [multiplied by] 308," she said.
The national media did very little actual on the ground reporting in last fall's by-elections. Instead, they covered them from Ottawa. Instead of going into the communities and talking to voters, stopping in at all candidates meetings, or visiting campaign offices to gauge volunteer support, they relied on the partisan spin they got from each camp, which is usually pretty divorced from reality. And the spin war was certainly active on Twitter.

Having relied on that picture, there was much Ottawa media shock when Julian Fantino barely won in Vaughan instead of the expected landslide, or Kevin Lamoureux scored a surprise victory in Winnipeg. Because they weren't getting an accurate picture from Twitter or (naturally) the spinners.

Point being, Twitter is neither a substitute for on the ground reporting, nor for on the ground campaigning. It is a tool among many, but it's just a tool. It's another channel to get the message out, and in an ever-fracturing communications world we need to leverage all the channels we can. There is great potential in social networking, and turning people into advocates within their personal networks.

Elections, however, are still fought and won (or lost) on the doorstep. Not by retweets.

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1 comment:

JimBobby said...

Excellent observations, Jeff.

While Twitter will probably, as you say, have not too much influence in Canadian electoral results, I think we need to give it credit for mobilizing those in other lands. Of course, I'm referring to Tunisia. I've heard the phrase "Twitter revolution" used to describe the uprising.

While we in Canada have the luxury of laptops and desktops and access to all the major news media, the majority of those in places like Tunisia have only a cell phone and text massaging. When citizen protesters are looking to avoid tear gas and riot police, tweets are more useful than on the ground MSM news reports.

Here in our more stable and staid peaceable kingdom, tweets may yet prove to have some influence. I'm thinking of Get Out The Vote initiatives. Low voter turnout and citizen cynicism means voter turnout can be a decisive factor in close riding races. While I agree that tweets won't change anyone's mind on who to support, they might just encourage actual voting.
Now... if we had a voting system that made voting as easy as tweeting...