Saturday, 13 June 2009

Political Tweeting

It is easy to get caught up in the hype around Twitter. With reported massive growth rates, its astronomical expansion has fed into its own hype attracting ever greater numbers. However Twitter's rapid success obscures some uncomfortable facts for the owners, who after all would like to turn it into a money spinner some day. According to this piece from The Telegraph, just 10 per cent of Twitter users are responsible for 90% of content. Even worse it suggests the typical user sends only one tweet before abandoning their accounts. The Telegraph says some 60% of users desert month on month, with only half as many staying loyal. The equivalent figures for Facebook and MySpace are double that - despite the latter's long-term decline.

If Twitter is over hyped, then why bother writing yet another unpaid commercial for it? Because if used in the right way, Twitter can be an invaluable political tool for leftist politics. It's not all about Stephen Fry's bowel movements.

First there is straight forward promotion. The
Telegraph piece noted "Twitter resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network.” This is certainly how Paul "Guido" Staines makes use of his account - it's just another extension of his self-publicity machine. Contrast this with the other Big Boy of British political blogging, Iain Dale who treats it as a musing board. He does however occasionally draw attention to his latest blog posts, which is transmitted to his (at the time of writing) 4,000 plus followers. And as a self-promotion tool it works brilliantly. For example, in Staines' statistics for April, Twitter came fifth in referrals, delivering 9,079 visits to his door.

But there's more to it than just raw numbers. There's the creation of loyalty and identification with a particular Twitter user, an aspect of the service not lost on some organisations who've tried to take advantage of this. Most UK political parties now have Twitter accounts, though the far left as per are slow on the uptake. At least
No2EU has one, even if no promotion was done outside the efforts of its supporters already using the service. That aside, anyone interested in how to use a Twitter account for party political purposes could do much worse than look at the Green Party. During the European elections not only was it regularly updated with Green news, activities, other events and environmental factoids, it often signalled its appreciation of its followers by retweeting some of their (interesting) offerings. This brings coherence to its follower base (who may then in turn follow those retweeted) et voila! A nascent online community is born around the party.

The importance of weak ties have long been
theorised in sociological circles and exploited by political actors of all stripes. Twitter offers another avenue for weak relationships to flourish. Thanks to Twitter I've built links with No2EU supporters, Labour lefts and politically mainstream people (including normal Stokies, of course) and we banter, exchange information, read and comment on each other's blogs, etc. And like all weak ties these can pay dividends down the road in terms of solidarity, publishing opportunities, dissemination of ideas, accumulation of political capital, etc.

And there are plenty of opportunities for connections to be made. Going by the top ten trending topics, British political developments often feature. Last week for example, Nick Griffin and the BNP were more or less permanent fixtures thanks to the European elections and
UAF's disruption of Nazi Nick's press conference. BBC's Question Time and Prime Minister's Questions also regularly turn up. This is because among the UK 10 per cent responsible for the bulk of Twitter's content, a disproportionate number are politically engaged people drawn from activism, blogging, the media and the Westminster circus. Furthermore, whereas the myth is the centre right dominates British political blogging, it seems the centre/liberal left has the upper hand on Twitter in terms of active participants. For socialist bloggers there is a ready potential audience for our humble contributions to the sum total of human wisdom.

There's more. When you follow and engage with a small cross section of the liberal-left fraction of the political establishment and subject yourself to the hundreds of 140 character long messages that pour out every day, you capture snapshots of their thinking. During the election results you got a real sense of their anger and bewilderment at the fascists' success. I read dozens upon dozens of messages condemning the 940,000 who voted BNP as irredeemable racists, as well as the attempts to scapegoat No2EU and the
SLP for letting them in. Similarly as Gordon Brown's premiership hung by a single thread, voices among Labour twitterers cheering on the Blears and the Purnells were few and far between.

So there you have it. Like all social media you get out of it as much as you're willing to put into it. Twitter does not offer leftists an internet shortcut to "fresh layers" or young people (who do not appear to be taking to Twitter in disproportionate numbers, anyway). But it can be used to bring together like minded people, promote socialist ideas to a wider layer of politicos, improve the profile of one's organisation and/or blog(s), build up contact networks, and understand what's exercising elite, notable and activist opinion. Twitter is no substitute for real world political work or the existing internet presence leftists have built up, but it can be a useful aid.


Charlie Marks said...

What you say about the Twitter response to BNP voters reminds me of Michael Crick on Newsnight being astonished when told by a Labour supporter that he was backing the party in the council elections, but voting UKIP in the Euros as an anti-EU protest. Also interesing in this regard was the CWU members also interviewed at polling stations - they had little appetite for Alan Johnson becoming Labour leader...

Matt Wardman said...

I think you make some excellent points. I think this is the most significant:

>The importance of weak ties have long been theorised in sociological circles and exploited by political actors of all stripes. Twitter offers another avenue for weak relationships to flourish.

The power of Twitter is the electronic promiscuity of its members, which allows rapid communication and organisation.

The political challenge for whichever side is perhaps to turn a zeitgeist into something solid - how do you institutionalise revolution?

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

Twitter is and always has been bollocks.

Phil BC said...

That's it, Matt. If used intelligently a political party or social movement organisation can accrue significant "drag" on Twitter. Through retweeting some of its messages can spiral way out from the originating account and draw thousands in to responding for the message. The anti-fascist stuff is a case in point.

But for parties wishing to exploit Twitter, do they go for an organic strategy of "naturally" growing followers or go for a crash mass follow from the off? Will either strategy impact on how that party is viewed by other users?

Daniel, you just don't get it cos you're not down wit da kidz :P

ModernityBlog said...

I think Daniel is right, there is a tendency with all technologies over the past 10 years to be over hyped, eventually, see the Internet bubble...

Not sure twitter will be around in 3 years.

I think the Left should spend its time on producing good quality blogs, training, media skills, videos and getting people to understand the skills of debate and persuasion. Where possible using open source software.

PS: I can bore you to death on technology too :)

Roobin said...

I've only learned the internet by ear, so I miss the precise technical side. The interesting thing I've noticed is articles, bits of news and videos bouncing very quickly round Facebook. I guess that they don't bounce so far as with Twitter, which is open whereas Facebook is basically closed. I order to spread a message electronically (not the end of the matter of course) you probably need 3 things (1) slot on Twitter, (2) a good Facebook group and (3) a good blog accumulator.

I think it's worth fighting for greater access and a better understanding of the internet. The far-left has a particular, well-defined structure and routine, which the internet hasn't been incorporated into. This leads some to say it can't/shouldn't be integrated, which is wrong.

Tristero said...

You can spot the non twitter users on here!

Twitter has enormous potential. I agree that it is the nature of the loose ties that are its key strength. I hasten to use the word 'revolutionary' but it is certainly interesting to see new forms of social relationship and communication form.

Another strength lies in the form. The shortness of each tweet forces you to strip down every message to its bare essentials.

Walter Benjamin said something that would be pretty fitting about twitter, but I cant quite remember it. I am going to go and look in my books.

> How do you institutionalise revolution?

You cant.

ModernityBlog said...

Eric lee who covers a lot of these issues related to trade unions, has some thoughts on the topic,

Mick Hall said...

I to doubt twitter will be with us in three years, but does that matter, As Phil says it gives us an opportunity to engage with each other and get info out beyond the small left ghetto.

twitter is little more than an instant messenger which sends messages to all and sudry.

Phil BC said...

Mick's spot on. Just to give you a quick example. At the moment I have 372 followers. When I tweeted the url of the cut n paste from the CWI website on Iran it went out to each of those followers. Not all of them have active accounts or view it every day, but I would say their rate is higher than the average seeing as most of them are political and media people.

Almost immediately two other followers retweeted the url on another three accounts, reaching a potential audience of over a thousand. Plus by giving my message a particular hashtag it appeared on the twitterfall for #iranelection. There thousands of people are viewing tweets as they're posted, some of whom will follow the link and read the article.

So no, Twitter won't be around forever unless a way of making money from the service is found (I'm sure they will, I can think of several ways off the top of my head). But while it's there it presents the left and left bloggers an opportunity to circumnavigate traditional media gatekeeping channels.