Is Your Representative a #FAIL on Twitter?

from adrielhampton.com

So, there are as many ways to use Twitter as there are users. But I’ll depart from many of my fine friends who state there are no wrong ways. There are plenty. Just take a look at this great hall of “FAIL” fame.

Right now, I want to talk about politicians on Twitter. Lots of government folks are using the service, and I’ve already highlighted many of the best, here. There are also several great more comprehensive lists. Two of the most complete are edited by Ari Herzog and by Steve Lunceford and his BearingPoint team, here and here. Additionally, TweetCongress is actively working to enlist our elected reps on the site.

I admire these efforts, and do what I can personally promote the use of Web 2.0 tools like Twitter by politicians. However, I firmly believe that Web 2.0 is defined by a culture, not the use of certain tools. In that vein, it is easy to see that most of the politicians using Twitter are not even close to the collaborative spirit enabled and enhanced by Web 2.0. And, as people who want to/claim to represent us in a democracy, I say, for shame.

I could make a huge list of politicians who are absolute fails on Twitter, using it as a one-way channel to tap into active users like hard-core partisan conservatives, but giving back not a whit. Many fail to follow back more than a handful of people, showing just how much interest they have in what their constituents are talking about. Really, how hard is it for an aide to help organize and track the account, just like any other constituent service?

But, instead of going on with a fail list, which would be just about as long as the aforementioned lists by Ari and Steve, let me highlight a few pols whose Twitter use I admire.

In picking these few out, I know that I am being extremely subjective. I will say though, that I have some right to make subjective judgments. I’m a career communicator, journalist, information-gathering expert, political activist, and avid Twitter user.

That said, here is where I am coming from: I don’t think any pol should be devoting a large share of their resources to Twitter. It is a niche communications channel, an important one, but small. I’m not really opposed to staff driven tweets, but I do want honesty about that. I’m also not really turned off on feeds – if you want to update your Twitter account just like a traditional Web site, that’s a valid option. That said, I do think that pols who tweet should follow back most people, with the exception for the overly abusive. They should take the time to learn, or have staff learn, the sites quirks and nuances before dropping in like somebody special. And though I’m very forgiving of much Twitter use, I personally only follow people who interact (so, no Barack Obama).

Also, I feel these issues are more serious than with “celebrity” accounts. Politicians aren’t celebrities – they are elected by people to represent those people. With those criteria in mind, here are three pols really getting into the Twitter spirit (and I had a little trouble counting to three):

Texas Congressman John Culberson
: Hands, down, Mr. Culberson is the best I’ve seen. He’s interactive, communicates important news and thoughts, and connects well with his base and others in the political and governance space. I disagree with many of his positions, but I’ve had a few good chats with him. Plus, he’s open to advice from peeps. Well done, sir.

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen: Ms. Bowen is a newer user on Twitter (she’s been active on Facebook much longer, doing a great job), and far from a prolific tweeter. However, she’s taken time to get the feel for it, talking about everything from politics to her love of gardening. She’s for real – got the legislature online in 1993, and the first CA legislator to have official e-mail. I’m excited to see what she does in the future.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom: I was weighing this one, since it’s still a bit fuzzy how much of this is the mayor and how much is staff. Not that I have a problem with that, but I like it to be clearly stated. Give the mayor, an early candidate for the 2010 CA governor’s race, credit for talking about his Twitter account during radio appearances and with the mainstream media. How do you think he got past 30,000 follower just weeks after beginning to actively use the long-dormant account? He’s also keeping his peeps happy, which is one of the ultimate tests.

So, what do you think? Am I far, far off in my subjective points? Who are your best and worst examples? Please share!

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Simon Pleasants

Hi Adriel,

Recognise your point that social media tools are social. But dunno if it’s reaonable to expect too much interaction from a ajority of pols on Twitter. or Facebook, even. Direct interaction takes time and is likely to produce only limited electoral results.

Can pols not simply use social media systems as one-way or asymmetrical comms tools to get into the channel rahter than spending valuable time being part of it?

Eg, It’s demonstrably valid for Barack Obama to have a twitter account in his name; even though it’s unlikely to be him Tweeting, he’s injecting his thoughts and opinions into the online conversation. That’s a good thing, surely?

Adriel Hampton

Simon – No, I don’t agree that simply having accounts is OK. I’m not talking about politics, I’m talking about governance. Barack Obama is not CNN or Ashton Kutcher. If he doesn’t want to talk to his hundreds of thousands of followers, he shouldn’t have a Twitter account. Or, if he just wants to push info into social media channels, he should do that and make it clear. This is why I respect Culberson – he spends time interacting with constituents and is very transparent about what his intentions are.

Walter Neary

Just saw this post and like it, especially the moderation suggested in the line “…I don’t think any pol should be devoting a large share of their resources to Twitter.” I talk to other electeds about this stuff and their eyes glaze over like “Oh no, not one more thing …” I’m enjoying Twitter as a way to fill, as Adriel says, a welcome but niche group of constituents in; there’s got to be better ways to aggregate e-opinions for full deliberation.
I do object to “it is easy to see that most of the politicians using Twitter are not even close to the collaborative spirit enabled and enhanced by Web 2.0 … And, as people who want to/claim to represent us in a democracy, I say, for shame.”
Most politicians did not emerge into Web 2.0 as participants from Web 1.0, and are learning as they go. We don’t have a long line of role models we’ve been immersed with. That’s not a shame, or yet another thing to blast them dang politicians about … it’s a learning opportunity.