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Can Twitter Reimagine Democracy?

Twitter’s plan to hire a government liaison (its first DC employee) has set off a a tweetstorm from the U.S. Capitol to London to Tokyo, and likely a flood of resumes into the Web 2.0 firm’s SoMa offices. Some of the Gov 2.0 community’s brightest have already offered great suggestions for how this new Twitter position can serve official government social media, and, with Facebook’s recent stumbles, the lighter social network may have a real opening here.I look forward to commenting and continuing the discussion on Twitter and on friend’s blogs (check out the hashtag #twitgov), but here I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the political side of the equation.
In 2009, I ran for House of Representatives in a crowded special election in the San Francisco East Bay. I had experience covering politics and government for the San Francisco Examiner and a few years of local government service under my belt, and a burning vision of the potential for social media and collaboration tools to change American politics and governance.

I launched my campaign in the dead of night, sending scores of private direct messages (by hand) to my most influential Twitter connections – mostly apolitical social media rock stars like Kim Sherrell and Calvin Lee – with a link to a blog post announcing my candidacy. The next morning, enough of my connections tweeted the post out publicly that the news quickly spread around the nation. By lunchtime, I was fielding calls from Democratic Party operatives and political Web publications from DC to San Francisco.

I made Politico and CQ Politics and kicked off what was to become a heated contest between five Democrats in a left-leaning district. I went on to fizzle, because while I knew media, I didn’t know a lick about fundraising or building a local political organization in the few short months before the election. Former Lt. Governor John Garamendi blew out the field, beating me by about 100-to-1.

However, I interacted with hundreds of people on Twitter during the campaign, tweeting thousands of times. On a microscopic budget, my campaign generated dozens of stories in the traditional press and I participated in a dozen debates with the region’s top politicians. Twitter also put me on the national stage and brought me several of my core volunteers, including an incredibly talented graphic designer and editing help from social media friends in New York and Washington state. It established scores of off and online relationships that remain valuable today.

It is my firm belief that what I did will be repeated more and more successfully over the next few election cycles, by better and better grassroots candidates, until we see social media-fueled campaigns beat the traditional. (One of Congressman Garamendi’s aides mentioned after the campaign that the boss had been concerned that my Twitter presence was bigger than his; each Democratic candidate in the field adopted a Twitter account, although only Garamendi and I kept ours up after the campaign.)

I used other tools, too – MixedInk, NationBuilder, Ning, WordPress, Google Docs and Facebook – but Twitter stood out, turning my mobile phone into full-fledged media operation and national sounding board.

This is a long way of saying that social media is changing the game. And Twitter has the potential to push that change along, reimagining grassroots democracy around the world.

The company’s active move into the world of government and politics is a big deal, and I hope it’s a great success. Twitter has a fairly high learning curve (I still see officials starting general audience messages with an @ ID sign, for example) and training politicians on its effective use is imperative to turning them on to its possibilities.

Much of improvement in gov/political uses will be driven by listening to the Twitter community, and I hope folks will leave suggestions here. A few of mine:

Suggested user list – There has been huge controversy around the SUL, which has helped a select group of Twitter users, including prominent politicians, quickly amass followings of a million or more. Since traditional media often rank candidate strength by number of followers (yeah, didn’t work for me ;), this kind of favoritism has real world political impact. But, like public financing, there is huge potential for the SUL to invigorate grassroots campaigns. What if instead of a employee-blessed suggestion list, Twitter created a political category that tied politicians to their own regions and added them only after meeting minimum and transparent social media influence marks? Any politician that could rally a threshold of local support could then benefit from enhanced exposure among the larger Twitter community.

Social portals – Twitter, with its light infrastructure and geo-location capabilities, could become the backbone of election sites and official gov portals, bringing social networking to more staid government and political sites and using universal log-ins to unlock additional features on candidate and constituent-services sites.

Transparent engagement metrics – From my own experience, the Twitter community craves and rewards engagement. As Twitter builds out its usage metrics, what if it it created a prominent dashboard that candidates could use and voters and newspapers could track?

These are just a few thoughts and personal reflections. I hope you’ll engage in the discussion about the future of Twitter for politics and government. Can Twitter – us – reimagine democracy?


@Twitter: Working at Twitter – Government Liaison

@Telegraph: Twitter to hire White House liaison to help policymakers ‘tweet more effectively’

@JohnFMoore: Attn Evan at Twitter, some advice regarding your government efforts

@AndrewPWilson: Top 10 Requests for the New Government Liaison at Twitter

@ShaunDakin: Why Twitter Should Hire Shaun Dakin for Their New Government Liaison Position

Twitter Discussion: #twitgov

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Sterling Whitehead

Great story Adriel. If I end up running for office someday (i.e. 5 years or so maybe), I’ll probably use a version of your model.

Molly Walker

Thanks for the thoughtful and timely post, Adriel. After reading the job post, it seems that this liaison will be focusing mostly on politicians. Leveraging Twitter to help agencies fulfill their missions sounds like something of an afterthought in the description.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Hey Adriel…your candidacy was a great example of how the little-known, everyman/woman can get in the game using social media tools…and I hope we see a success story very, very soon.

But I also want to keep beating this drum wherever I see a related conversation…including in any discussion around helping candidates that we also need to be about transforming offices.

The more we talk about Twitter being used as a tool to get elected, the more I fear it becomes:

(a) a “push” tool for information dissemination (vs. true engagement)
(b) a marketing vehicle for the person/candidate (vs. the district/state s/he will represent)

However candidates use Twitter to get elected is how they will use them to stay elected…tied to their personal brand (vs. the group of people they are meant to represent).

So my hope is that Twitter’s government liaison assists the officials in Washington, DC, to think about setting up something for their office that endures – that lives beyond the candidates’ time in DC…and that any Twitter handles set up for their campaigns are distinct and distinguishable….not one and the same.

Anything less and we will fall short of your vision to re-imagine democracy.

Andrew Krzmarzick

P.S. Just looked at the job description – so I see it does include language around helping the offices to better use Twitter…but what concerns me is the more frequent use of the term “political” vs. policy-making…I’d advocate for a bit of a change to that terminology.

Arvind Nigam

Aptly put.

But I disagree with “… geo-location capabilities, could become the backbone of election sites and official gov portals, bringing social networking to more staid government …”.

Elections sites/Gov websites are much more than communication on tweets. Besides the edge that Twitter has through mobile network is something others are going to achieve too. So it is all about few months time. And lastly, will ever Government want to place all its eggs in one basket: The Twitter Company?