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Twitter and Politics: What Matt Bai Doesn't Get

BY Micah L. Sifry | Sunday, April 26 2009

First Maureen Dowd writes a (justly parodied) silly diss of Twitter, and now Matt Bai, who covers politics for the Times Sunday Magazine, offers his own misreading of Twitter's importance for politics. Like many inside the Beltway, Bai focuses on the handful of DC insiders who have begun using Twitter to share details of their day--some inane, some intimate and some genuinely illuminating. But to him, this is most like former Senator Bob Graham's obsessive compulsive diary-keeping: "just plain weird." He adds, "it just may be the worst thing to happen to politics and its attending media since a couple of geniuses at CNN dreamed up “Crossfire” back in the 1980s."

I guess some of the smart kids in the mainstream media just refuse to learn something new until you spell it out for them. So here's a note to Matt Bai and the other big-foot journalists who are dismissing Twitter:

It isn't what the politicians are doing with it (99% of them, as Bai points out, are using it as yet one more uni-directional communications tool, tweeting to thousands of followers but following--and interacting with--very few). At best, it's a tool for humanizing some of them when used that way, and while that's barely a big deal it hardly seems as harmful as Crossfire was to the national discourse.

It's the usage by networks of politically-attentive individuals that is far more interesting. Along with blogs, social networks and other interactive communications tools, Twitter is helping knit together real-time response and collaboration across all kinds of political issues and campaigns.

Just take what we did with Twitter Vote Report, as one salient example. In about three weeks, an all-volunteer loosely-linked network of coders, political activists and journalists came together to popularize the #votereport hashtag, get all the voter-protection groups to add it to their Election Day reporting systems, created robust reporting tools and visualization systems (including iPhone and Android apps that collected moving audio reports of people's polling experiences), and the whole thing worked on Election Day. More than 12,000 individual reports came in, NPR, the LA Times and the NY Observer were among the mainstream outlets that used the data (which was all free for anyone to work with), and I'm sure hundreds of thousands more heard about the project because so many of the reports were flowing in via Twitter. We also pulled in dozens of volunteers who, behind the scenes, volunteered time on Election Day to monitor the incoming reports and help clean up the data so we could categorize information properly and in some case pass along urgent issues to folks in the vote-protection communities and in the press. It's inspired an effort now in India to use the same methods for a project called Vote Report India, by the way.

Bai also missed what the conservatives are trying to do to build new communications networks around common hashtags like #tcot or #dontgo, and how liberals are also using the platform to galvanize their own communities. The other day, the Sunlight Foundation (which I consult for) conducted a brief push to get folks to tweet the 17 Senators who are currently on Twitter to get them to cosponsor S. 482, Feingold's bill to get the Senate to file its campaign finance reports electronically (rather than on paper), and within a few hours two of them (Boxer and McCaskill) had responded directly, via their Twitter accounts, to announce that they were signing on.

While I agree with Bai that our political discourse has become incredibly atomized and sped-up, I would hardly point the finger at Twitter as the cause of that (Blackberries and online news sites have been around a lot longer). It probably does contribute a little more to the speed-up effect, but I would argue that these other networking effects are of much greater import.