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Network-Weaving on Twitter: TweetProgress Launches to Counter Conservative Lead

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, August 24 2009

Are conservatives out-organizing progressives on Twitter, as a recent story on CNN reported? And does their seeming dominance matter?

For online activists in America, these are hard questions to answer, not least because a) "organizing on Twitter" is still (and may always be) a very loose process; b) usage of popular hashtags like #tcot ("top conservatives on Twitter," launched November 28, 2008) or #p2 ("progressives 2.0, launched in response February 13, 2009") is an imperfect measure of strength; c) judging by top follower numbers, Twitter's audience appears to lean liberal (more on that in a separate post); and d) we're still figuring out what Twitter is, and isn't, good for in terms of political battles (i.e. it's clearly good for rapid-response message wars, but not [yet?] good for raising money, judging from the closure of TipJoy, for example).

That said, the conventional wisdom right now is that yes, it matters, and yes, conservatives are dominant. See this post ("Why Twitter Matters & The Left Should Be Nervous") by techPresident blogger Michael Turk for a good recent recap of these arguments. This chart from Trendistic shows how much #tcot is being used on Twitter vs #p2, and it certainly shows conservatives topping progressives by a steady margin.

Indeed, even the usage of Twitter by libertarians (who are disproportionate represented online) appears to match its usage by progressives, judging by the tracking of the hashtag #tlot vs #p2.

Faced with numbers like these, a new network-weaving effort on the left, TweetProgress, is being launched by progressive activists convinced they have to play catch-up. Here's what Tracy Viselli, one of the group's organizers (along with Jon Pincus and Gina Cooper), says about its genesis:

...progressives have got to start somewhere and starting with the facts is as good a place as any. When you look at the hashtags conservatives and progressives use on Twitter the story becomes more clear. The conservative hashtag #TCOT (Top Conservatives on Twitter) is used at about an average of 2,000 times per day while #p2 (progressives 2.0) is used about 400 times per day (very rough estimates).

That a tag is used more often than another only means just that. But those numbers do mean something–something that becomes more clear when you look at visualization sent to me by Jim Gilliam, creator of WhiteHouse2.org, Nationbuilder, and the Twitter petition site act.ly). It comes from a blog post on ReadWriteWeb about Twitter use during the Iran election: Evolution of a Revolution: Visualizing Millions of Iran Tweets, by Kovas Boguta.

Viselli continues:

If you look closely at visualization you will see the dense cluster of blue communication points on the right that reflects #TCOT use on Twitter, or as Boguta describes it: “tightly interwoven conservative twittersphere.” No where on that visualization do you see progressives and that should be troubling to progressive activists.

Of course, isn’t just about numbers or sides, it’s about influence and some of the things you can do on Twitter–influence the media for instance. Drafting more progressives into an existing infrastructure will be the key to more successful actions and issue campaigns. Plans are in motion to do just that so keep any eye out for more developments.

The message I want everyone to come away with after reading this post is that conservatives may be using their hashtag more often than progressives but that doesnt mean they are out organizing progressives online. In fact, progressives still do a better job pushing issues through blogs and progressive advocacy groups are using Twitter in all kinds of innovative ways. Twitter is not the be all end all of online activism but it is an online platform progressives need to make sure we own in the very near future.

So far, the number of participants in TweetProgress has nearly tripled. (When I joined last night, it had about 425 members; it's now at 1,134.) The list is moderated by Jim Gilliam, in order to keep non-progressives from hijacking it. Building an aggregator, of course, is just the first step in weaving a community. The next question will be what progressive twitterers use it for, and what uses catch on. It shall also be interesting to see how online conservatives respond.