“I just don’t get Twitter” – words I often here uttered in political circles in Brussels and London. How can 140 characters be used to communicate effectively? This is a first effort to explain how to use Twitter in a political context.
Firstly the Twitter slogan “What are you doing?” is a bit ambiguous for the sake of politics. Some folks might post “I’m having muesli for breakfast” on Twitter, but as a politician or political organisation you are not going to be doing that. However the vocabulary of Twitter is vitally important: rather than Facebook term friends, on Twitter you have followers, and you follow people. Essentially Twitter is about building up communities of interest among people that care about the same things, but do not necessarily know each other offline.
Don’t however fall into the trap of just using Twitter as a broadcast medium – it’s about discourse and discussion, and it’s good practice to follow the people that follow you, and then unfollow if it gets annoying. Boris Johnson (@MayorofLondon) has it wrong – no interaction whatsoever with his followers.
Look at it this way: Facebook is for people you know, and Twitter is for the people you think you would like to know.
Let me give an example of this. I personally work in the area of political and governmental website design. Three of the very best professionals in the sector in the UK are Simon Dickson (@simond on Twitter), Steph Gray (@lesteph) and Dave Briggs (@davebriggs). I happen to know Simon and Steph personally, but have never met Dave. That does not stop me respecting the work that he does, and exchanging messages with him on Twitter about various web projects. These sorts of interactions I would not build via e-mail or Facebook. So follow and reply to people whose views you respect, people with something interesting to say.
So how does the 140 characters thing work? Essentially you should view this as a necessary part of Twitter to keep things concise. I’m never going to read a verbose press release from 10 Downing Street but I will follow them on Twitter (@downingstreet – more than 800K followers), short bite-size updates of what the PM is doing. Politicians and political organisations are known for being dull and long winded, so think of the 140 character limit as a way to keep it short and snappy.
Twitter also allows you to keep the professional and personal separate more easily than Facebook – it is possible to open up as many accounts as you wish and then use the different accounts for alternative purposes – I’m @jonworth and @AtheistBus on Twitter, essentially one community of interest about tech and EU politics, and the other about atheism.
Lastly there are a whole range of tools that allows Twitter to work all over the place very easily. On a desktop machine try Nambu (Mac) or Tweetdeck (PC) to manage your multiple Twitter accounts. There are Twitter apps for smart phones (e.g. Tweetie for iPhone) and you can also post updates via text message (add your mobile at twitter.com/devices).
So signup for an account, find some people to follow (Google twitter and whatever you’re interested in), hit the follow button on someone’s Twitter page, and let the discussions begin…