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Inside the 112th Congress's Great Twitter Handover

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, January 5 2011

Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol

Today, of course, marks the handover in power in the U.S. House of Representatives, from Democrats to Republicans, from Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Speaker John Boehner, and the question on everyone's minds on this fairly historic day is, of course, quite naturally, what happens to all those Twitter handles? What becomes of @SpeakerPelosi now? Or @GOPLeader? Okay, so not everyone's minds. But it was on our minds. Let's dive in.

The crux of the situation is ably captured by one new media staffer in the GOP leadership. "We realized months ago that there would be an issue if we won back the House and had to change leadership titles, and thus the handles that go with them," writes the aide in an email. "The basic decision was: do we move the followers into new handles that match new Leadership titles, or keep the @GOPWhip, @GOPLeader, etc. as institutions that don't change, despite whoever actually is the whip or leader?" Shorter version: is the Twitter account the possession of the man or woman in the office, or of the office itself? This is the first congressional transition of the Twitter era, and everyone is pretty much making it up as they go along.

"I think there are good arguments to be made for both of these," says the staffer. "But the former," as in making the person the vessel, rather than the office he or she holds, "is the one we chose."

The great Twitter handover of the 112th Congress is made somewhat more interesting because of the fact that Twitter is structured so that the account -- and its attendant followers -- aren't the same thing as the handle, which is whatever follows the @ symbol in general Twitter usage. (My "handle" is, for example, @nancyscola.) Twitter, unlike, say, Facebook, runs free and easy with name changes on accounts, as long as the desired new name doesn't already belong to someone else. If you're John Boehner, who was until today @GOPLeader as well as the Minority Leader in the House, you can simply rebrand your account @SpeakerBoehner and keep your followers, or you can hand the keys to @GOPLeader over to the new Minority Leader, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia -- and thus give him a welcoming present of the 70,000 followers collected under that account. Boehner went with the first option, bequeathing the name to Cantor but not the followers. "The new Majority and GOP Leader Mr. Cantor and his staff will take good care of it," says Nick Schaper, Boehner's new media director.

"I think it's important precedent that these things be held by those currently in office, so we are changing the names, " says Matt Lira, new media director for Cantor. "But each community is sticking with the person. So, ours will become @GOPLeader and the current followers of GOPWhip will go to that, etc., up and down the line. Just like the job title, the podium, and the website -- I think it's great to build permanent social media presences for these various offices that are passed on over time."

Says Lira, "Since all the people are staying in the Leadership team, we thought of what the communities would want -- people that specifically followed Boehner, etc. Similar to the White House transitions, they take the email lists with them, but the URLs, addresses, etc. go to the new occupant." In this case, the handover has been facilitated by the fact that it's an intra-party switch. The Republican leadership said that they had that in mind when picking out their "GOP"-branded Twitter names; one can imagine the stickiness of having to hand over, say, the party-agnostic @MinorityLeader from Boehner to the newly minted Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

The great Twitter handover has been facilitated by the fact that Twitter has taken an active role in the process. Some questions about just who these accounts "belong" to are watered down, perhaps, by the fact that they are, technically, free, and thus look different from other office resources. But there is a cost to them, of course, and it comes from the dependence on an outside, corporate communications platform. With so much political communications happening on Twitter these days, it's only natural that elected members of Congress would find themselves going to Twitter to get help with the process -- in some cases help without which they'd be in a bit of a bind. In order for Cantor, for example, to pick up @GOPLeader, Boehner would normally have to release it. That introduces a scary few seconds or minutes where anyone might pick it up. Twitter's to the rescue here. In November, the company hired on a person specifically to manage the company's working relationships with those in government.

"Adam Sharp, Twitter's new man in Washington, has been an enormous help and valuable resource in this process," says one leadership staffer. Asked to comment, Sharp pointed me to Twitter's communications shop.

"Accounts belong to users, and it is up to them as to how they want to proceed," writes Twitter's Carolyn Penner.  "Leadership offices can either pass along the login credentials to a leadership account, leaving its followers and Tweet history unchanged, or members can change their account names to reflect their new roles.  Members changing their account names will be able to retain their current followers and Tweet history just as any other user does when changing their name. We are working with the leadership teams on both sides of the aisle to make sure the options are clear and that the transition is as smooth as possible when Congress convenes on Wednesday."

The GOP plan -- to shift followers with the man (or woman, but in this case it's all men) rather than the office -- isn't without its victims. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California took his nearly 6,000 followers with him when he got the bump up from chief deputy whip to whip. Rep. Peter Roskam uses his @PeterRoskam to, in part, tweet about his work that's of interest to his northeastern Illinois district. Shifting those followers to the @ChiefDeputyWhip account, which presumably will have more to do with the political functioning of the House, didn't make a lot of sense. And so Roskam found himself with a leadership Twitter account this morning that had a sum total of zero followers. He's now up to five. Cantor's office will, for their part, take a nearly opposite approach to handling their accounts. The leadership account, @GOPLeader, will, says his office be handled by Cantor directly, tweeting for himself. They've rolled out @CantorPress to handle coverage of the official work of their office.

What does this mean for followers? For those a bit unsure about how Twitter accounts work, it might be slightly confusing. Take this example: you were following @GOPLeader way back on Monday, in the Boehner era, but as of today you're no longer following that account, though you are still following John Boehner, the man, to @SpeakerBoehner. If you were following @GOPWhip when Cantor held that post, you're now automagically following @GOPLeader. Got it?

Beyond that, there are repercussions for the Internet writ large. Last night, Nancy Pelosi announced her switch to a new account. She made the best of it. "I'm now @NancyPelosi - 2 characters shorter than @SpeakerPelosi. RTers [that is, retweeters] rejoice!" Elsewhere on the Democratic side, Steny Hoyer of Maryland has gone from @LeaderHoyer to @WhipHoyer, and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina has gone from @WhipClyburn to just @Clyburn. Including the name in the account handle ties it more firmly to the person than the office, perhaps, but the loss of title means the loss of working links. Visitors to the "@LeaderHoyer" or "@WhipClyburn" page get what's perhaps a fitting error message: "Sorry, that page doesn't exist!" Twitter redirects individual tweets to the new account, but, links to those main accounts listed anywhere on the web are today broken.

As mentioned , Twitter is fairly open when it comes to giving users power to change ownership over their accounts, and what those accounts are branded, as far as online social platforms go. Facebook is rather more restricted. "Facebook allows pages that meet certain criteria to edit the name of their page," says Facebook's manager of public policy communications in DC Andrew Noyes. "In limited circumstances, like the transition of power in Congress, we may work with existing pages to allow them to most accurately reflect their new situation." As of this morning, "Speaker Nancy Pelosi" is no more on Facebook.

With the degree to which American politics has come to the social media space in just the last few years, these are perhaps the first time some of these questions are being asked, but they won't be the last. What happens to @PressSec now that its creator, Robert Gibbs, announced this morning that he's leaving the White House? Are his 130,000 followers interested in what Gibbs the man has to say, or what White House Press Secretary X has to say? What happens to @WhiteHouse when the Obama administration, which created the account, is no more? It seems natural that the account would stay with the White House. But what if, say, Newark Mayor Cory Booker is the next person in the Oval Office? He might well want to bring along his one million and counting Twitter followers. "I hope that we are setting the right precedents here," writes Cantor aide Lira, "ones that will at least contribute to a broader culture of smart choices in this area."

"Of course," he adds, "as always, I'm happy to find out if I am wrong."