17 November 2011

Politicians and Twitter – “just like me” or you?

The Telegraph magazine on 12 November carried an article, Too Big to Fly?, by Joe Hagan:
While Twitter struggles to impose order on the 200 million messages a day that cascade through its servers, the battle to make the company profitable has become a race against time.
The article concluded that the potential for profitability exists, but a way has to be found to introduce advertising without turning the tweeters and their readers off the whole thing. Hagan’s article contained a lot of interesting material, some of it particularly so:
To attract and hold the audience, and to attract the talent, Twitter needs the media as its accomplice. In 2008, Twitter hired Chloe Sladden, a former executive at Al Gore’s TV network, Current, to work with news agencies and cable networks. An attractive and animated speed-talker with bright, flashing eyes, Sladden was tasked with convincing old media that Twitter was the handmaiden to their future. … 
The impact of all this hand-holding was not only to help the media but also to help the media help Twitter. To make Twitter seem inevitable, it got people with large organic followings, like newspeople and celebrities, to use it and draw in more users - what social-media investors call ‘viral looping’. Sladden is in charge of schooling these adoptees – television’s talking heads, reality television producers, newspaper columnists - in the ways of Twitter, which is, in essence, about giving followers that ‘magical feeling’ of being inside with the insiders. Sladden’s message is that to build an audience, you have to draw back the curtain on your life, or appear to. In Sladden’s view, this is perfectly in step with broader developments in the culture. ‘We’re changing to this more quote-unquote authentic media experience,’ she says, and everything is caught on tape. And that was a big part of the mission here, making it a two-way experience.
The key to this ‘authenticity’ is the use of the word ‘I’. The first rule of Twitter is that talking about yourself makes the tool work better. The upshot is a narcissism so democratized that users don’t have to feel guilty about it and, in fact, barely notice it.  
In 2007 Twitter hired Adam Sharp, a former aide to Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, to promote Twitter among the political class. Working closely with new-media staffers in the congressional caucuses, Sharp held private events to teach senators and congressmen why and how they should use Twitter, promising that they can ‘build a deep echo chamber to have a continuing dialogue with these people, who then go into their communities and they can say, “I was tweeting with Senator So-and-so last night.”’  Sharp figures three-quarters of Congress have signed on to Twitter. Sharp says, ‘If they can make that connection – “Oh, he’s a family man, he’s just like me,” or “She’s a working mother, just like me” - the candidates realise that the “just like me” is the most effective foundation for engaging in the political conversation.’
So, when we read tweets from British politicians, like Ed Balls’ about his culinary achievements, or Louise Mensch’s on going to Asda, and if we experience a ‘magical feeling’ of being insiders in their lives, we should bear in mind that it’s just possible that they (or their staffers) have had private training in how to build ‘deep echo chambers’. Remember, politicians are by definition not “just like me”, or you, at all.

Hagan’s article, which is well worth reading in full, doesn’t seem to be on telegraph.co.uk, but his similar piece published on 2 October, Tweet Science, is available on the New York magazine’s website.

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