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Twitter Pols: Following the Followers?

BY Tom Watson | Tuesday, February 10 2009

It's fascinating to watch major politicians (and their staffs) try to adapt to the direct communications juggernaut that is Twitter. Some seem to grasp its instinctive two-way, multi-directional DNA - but others have their Tweets set firmly on the "outgoing only" box.

Consider Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, whose outspoken populism of late aimed at bailout bankers and their TARP excesses would seem to make for a lively Twitter conversation - tons of salary-capped and private jet-grounded banter in 140 characters or less.

But McCaskill is only using the megaphone feature on Twitter - she's got over 4,000 followers, but is following exactly one person: her own Congressional staffer. And that's fine, except it's like buying a Cadillac and sitting in the back seat with the motor running and the car in park.

Sen. McCaskill's posts are lively and seem authentic, like her Tweets before her Meet the Press appearance last weekend:

A little nervous. But not like I was when I went on MTP to debate Jim Talent in the Senate race. My knees were knocking.

Cool, but wouldn't it be better for her to dive into the powerful feedback loop that is Twitter? That's what Governor Deval Patrick did to good effect when the Washington Post floated rumors about an Obama Administration appointment. Read one tweet: "Gov Patrick: WashPost blog floats your name for HHS. Are you in the mix? Would you take if offered. Thanks."

As related by Sarah Bourne, Chief Technology Strategist, Information Technology Division for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, here's what happened next (this from her blog):

Fortunately, staff in the Governor's Office was watching Twitter. They not only look for tweet "replies" directly to @MassGovernor, but also use Twitter Search's RSS feature and so were able to find this reference to the Governor. In just about an hour, @MassGovernor replied:

@rdsahl As the Governor has said countless times, he is staying put and running for re-election. - Kyle Sullivan, Press Secretary

Bourne's footnote to the (minor, but telling) episode: "This quote was in Friday's Boston Globe (p. B2) and the story was also picked up by Associated Press. There was bit of a flurry in the Twitterverse and blogosphere because @rdsahl is NECN reporter R.D. Sahl and he was using Twitter to do his job. Yay, social media!"

Then there's Pete Hoekstra, the Republican Congressman from Michigan's 2nd District - who made news by providing Twitter updates from inside a supposedly secret congressional delegation that traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I'm very transparent," Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, told the Grand Rapid News. "That's one of my hallmarks."

And Hoekstra's Twitter trail shows some listening as well: 3,170 followers and 2,749 follows. Wonder what he's hearing about the stimulus package?