“Joe Biden (@VP), has a little more than 179,000 followers. But fakers.statuspeople.com reports that 27 percent are fake. It reads like an official Twitter account, with very little personal engagement.” – Bill Murphy, Jr., www.ink.com, May 29, 2013
Professional politics has met its match. No, it’s not health care, the shutdown or even the debt ceiling. It’s Twitter. Politicians are embarrassingly bad at it.
The marketing experts tell us that users of Twitter fall into two groups, their differing profiles being similar to those who subscribe to The Wall Street Journal and those who pass notes in class.
The one is made up of serious miners of information. They use customized lists that produce Twitter feeds rivaling the hourly briefings of a CIA cell.
Members of the other group, teenagers primarily, use Twitter with casual abandon inside a small social circle. They send messages – every few seconds if not supervised – that are inchoate and mysterious to the uninitiated, but are mostly just inane. This last group, oddly, includes a subset of powerful politicians.
You would think that Twitter would be just the tool for representative democracy. Not so, alas. The celebrity, the sex fiend, the dyspareunian, the dyskinesian and the narcissist – they all seem to be tweeting to legitimate, albeit strange, niches. Reading the tweets of politicians, though, you wonder who they imagine is reading their work. (The account of Anthony Weiner being one place where Twitter worlds collide.)
In preparation for this article, tweets of leading Indiana politicians were collected over several months. They have been thrown away – a waste of good computer memory. Some examples:
Our staff had a great time at (@blank) with the (@blank) this afternoon!
I congratulate newly sworn-in (@blank).
Groups like (@blank) work to break cycle of poverty.
Really impressed by (@blank) staff.
Visiting (@blank) to tour and connect on education. They do amazing work.
What a day to celebrate our nation’s freedom. Just thinking about all who have defended that freedom for many generations. So thankful.
Do they think that is how Lady Gaga got 40 million followers? Do they imagine that sort of stuff will attract even those who regularly read Statehouse press releases?
No, those would be us hapless editors, news directors and political reporters who are paid for doing so. Free men and women in the nanosecond world of the Internet don’t have time for it.
To summarize, the methods of the professional politician, command-and-control justified by a progressive vision, are at odds with the diverse, individual-driven reality of Twitter. Here is Michael Malone writing on a tangential point for Forbes:
“Whatever else it is, progressivism holds a top-down, mass-control, limited-freedom political philosophy that has only grown more anachronistic as the decades have passed and as, ironically, technology itself has increasingly supported decentralized, networked and bottom-up institutions. Corporations learned that a generation ago (or they disappeared). In successful corporations today, management works best when it is the servant of employees and customers: Look at the backlash from a billion users every time Facebook or Twitter tries to impose some new rule from above. . . .That leaves progressivism the last true bastion of late 19th century command-and-control thinking. It can build as many websites and social networks as it likes, but as long as it tries to impose mass solutions from the top in a world of personalized solutions from the bottom, it is doomed to fail – and our nation continue its slide into debt and enfeeblement.”
The takeaway is that Twitter is not only useless to the political class but anathema to it. The professional politician is in the business of winning elections and amassing power, not finding better ways to inform an electorate. That requires obfuscating and manipulating – hard to do within a 140-word limit and in front of potentially tens of millions of fact-checkers.
A claim, then, that this or that politician has a legitimate Twitter following can be dismissed as laughable – at least if you don’t count dependent members of his immediate family and paid retainers. For the truth is that insightful, instant, widely assessable, compressed and spontaneously honest digital mass communication is not going to be their thing.