I’ve been following the comments on Jane Taber’s article about my white paper and realize there’s some confusion about Twitter as a communication channel for our MPs and more to be said about the evolution of digital and social technologies. I also anticipate there to be more dialog about this following my appearance on CBC’s The House later this morning.

Signal quality and the use of Twitter

Twitter is no more a channel for the mundane than social gatherings, speeches, town hall meetings, the telephone (and ultimately the cell phone), print and broadcast media, faxes, email and websites — and noone’s complaining about MP use of those technologies. It’s likely the use of those technologies was contentious when MPs first started adopting them just as it’s likely we’d be mocking our politicians for not using them now.

However, the effectiveness of the channel doesn’t determine the quality of the signal (the content/messages being posted); the quality of the signal determines the effectiveness of the channel. What Twitter offers is an easy-to-use ubiquitous technology through which politicians can share information (official and human) AND engage with the public at large. Social media is the only media which offers this opportunity to both politicians and the public at zero cost.

MPs don’t occupy themselves sending unnecessary emails, making unnecessary phone calls and conducting unnecessary meetings. I think it’s fair to say they won’t put their political work on hold to engage in a live Twitter chat. However, Twitter offers a great opportunity for MPs to conduct forums and opinion polls on matters of public interest.

Communicating in 140 characters

Twitter does not replace other forms of communication which are better suited to more thoughtful and lengthy discussion. I can’t imagine Twitter being used to filibuster a committee meeting. It’s yet another way to share information, particularly information that has some immediacy to it.

What Twitter offers is yet another way for MPs to remain connected with the public. MPs can’t attend town halls in Halifax when they need to be in Ottawa. Besides, there are strong arguments to be made about fiscal responsibility by teleconnecting. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s recent Facebook public forum was a great example of using technology to engage with the public at large. It would be interesting to see if more politicians do that kind of thing more often.

Follower quality (voting constituents, non-supporters and the public at large)

One commenter (J. K. Galbraith) asked some great questions.

  • How many of the people who are following the MP’s or leaders of the party are actually in their constituencies and can actually vote for them?
  • How many of their followers are new supporters versus people who were already supporting them?

Politicians generally represent two groups of people: their immediate constituents, and their constituencies of interest. So, someone in Calgary might want to follow Jason Kenney as their elected representative in addition to the MPs who are responsible for debating their professional interests (e.g. Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis, NDP critic Pat Martin and Liberal critics David McGuinty and Geoff Regan).

It’s interesting to note that Neilsen statistics report Twitter usage is highest among 35-49 year olds — perhaps the most important demographic for most politicians. Other social networks are also skewing older. Facebook’s fastest growing age groups are 35-54 and 55+ according to an iStrategy report. This means that the people politicians most want to reach are beginning to adopt and gather on social networks.

Real-time meaningful information

In a comment that suggested Twitter’s biggest naysayers have no first-hand knowledge of the service, Kristin shared a great example of how Twitter helps B. C. commuters get to work on time.

Translink, the company that manages public transit in the BC lower mainland, has a Twitter account. Translink will tweet about traffic delays or accidents that are causing buses to be rerouted. From this, I know in the mornings whether I need to leave early to catch my bus to avoid being late, or to take a different route altogether. Useful and very efficient.

Twitter as an official government channel

One commenter expressed frustration about being blocked from specific MPs’ Twitter accounts (blocking allows an account holder to selectively block other Twitter accounts from following them, sending a reply message and mentioning their Twitter account ID in a Tweet). There are ways around this, of course. For example, one does not need to be logged in to Twitter to follow messages from a specific user. Tweets are public and can be searched.

Regardless, Twitter is NOT an official government communication channel. The accounts are free (no cost to taxpayers) and held by individuals, not offices. Nor is Twitter identified in any Parliamentary act. As much as a digital geek as I am, I would never expect, nor want, Twitter to be explicitly identified as an official channel. Technology moves too quickly. Legislation needs to be agnostic if it’s to remain relevant as the digital economy grows.

I have some thoughts on what I call the digitization of democratic participation and the political process which I’ll share in another post. As I identified in my white paper, Twitter represents the “long head” of that curve.