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Why Twitter Matters & The Left Should Be Nervous

BY Michael Turk | Tuesday, May 5 2009

I realize I'm inviting much ridicule from my friends on the left, but I'm going to write this post anyway, and I'm going to leave the title intact - Why Twitter Matters & The Left Should Be Nervous. It's no doubt going to generate some giggles among the online intelligentsia in the Democratic Party. That's ok with me.

I have, for several months now, seen a string of posts and tweets from these same lefty friends that are either mocking or dismissive of the Conservatives nascent efforts on Twitter. Here's one example courtesy of TechPresident's own Micah Sifry.

It's positively quaint to listen to Republicans murmur optimistically about their "dominance" on Twitter. #polc09, #tcot, #p2

The very first time I saw a comment like that, it reminded me immediately of comments I had seen and heard before. They were the openly dismissive comments directed by complacent and cocky Republicans at the Democrats efforts online.

I specifically remember more than a few people, myself included, who watched the rise of the online left with initial derision. As late as 2004 and 2005, I heard things like, "The Democrats and their blogs. How's that working out for them? All that effort and how many wins has it resulted in?"

Beginning with Conrad Burns and George Allen, we began to quickly see the results of "those blogs". It's a lesson we failed to heed early on, and it contributed greatly to our demise.

What we failed to recognize was the infancy of an effort to use new technology to mobilize. It was an effort to build a new network and the infrastructure to disseminate a coherent message.

I have argued that the reason the Democrats never mastered talk radio was very simple - they never had to. In modern politics, the insurgent party will adapt to the most interactive (and the most real-time) technology available at the time. In 1992, having lost the White House, House and Senate, the GOP gravitated toward talk radio. Despite it being a broadcast medium, it was the most interactive medium available. It was adapted to facilitate the conversation about the direction of the party and the country.

The Democrats, rising out of the loss in 2000, had to coallesce around a platform. Talk radio, had the Internet not been available, would likely have become the staging area and the rise of the left on talk radio would have been a near certainty. But a funny thing happened on the march toward the AM dial.

With the Internet, blogs and Meetup became the new polis for the exiled Democrats.

Now you could argue that two data points is hardly enough to qualify my central thesis - the adaption of interactive forums by the out party. But keep in mind that Americans detachment from one another and from in-person communities really didn't explode until about this same time. Prior to that, most people who were politically active simply turned to their party and its structures. It's just the last 20 years that have split us from our parties and each other, so we can only look at the data available.

That brings us back to the present day and the Republicans.

Now that we are the out party, we are turning to the Internet to discuss, debate and strategize the party's future. It is no longer, however, simple enough to label "The Internet" as a monolithic thing the way we did with the Democratic use of the medium. The Internet is no longer about websites as it was with blogs and Meetup. The Internet, as it exists today, is more a generic platform for advanced communication services - whether they are site based, text messages, cellular applications, or anything else.

In the world of converging technologies, Twitter represents the single most interactive, most real-time, tool available. Twitter is mobile. Twitter is rapid. Twitter facilitates deep content (via linking) and fast action (via retweets and viral distribution).

For the Democrats that dismiss Republican testing of many and various models of activism on Twitter, you should watch very closely what's going on, rather than simply mocking it. Complacency and satisfaction with your status quo is a slippery slope and it's very easy to fall into the "yes, but what has it gotten them" mindset.

It is likely, I would even say certain, that Twitter, or some next generation concept that builds upon Twitter's framework, will be a central component of the GOP resurgence. It most certainly won't happen overnight. However, I guarantee you will - when you find yourself out of power again - be able to trace the roots of your downfall to this earliest of efforts.

Until then, to my friends on the left, let me say two things. First, we'll keep using Twitter, and you can keep cracking jokes. Second, as long as you do, we'll see you on the other side, soon enough.

Update: Based on further conversation (via Twitter) about this post, I need to clarify a point. I'm not claiming the GOP is currently "dominant" on Twitter. That was Micah's reference. I'm simply looking at the tendency for conservatives to adapt to Twitter faster and easier than they have other online venues.

The left's attitude (represented by Micah's comment) seems to me to be that the GOP is putting all its eggs in the Twitter basket without doing all the other things that the left did to be successful. My argument is that's a false assumption. It requires that the GOP mimic the left to advance online. Just as the left bypassed the right's use of talk radio and went straight on to a different model, I think the right may be able to skip directly past the duplication of the left's infrastructure by simply making use of what are currently the most advanced communications and mobilization tools. I see evidence that many in the right are developing new models in an effort to do just that.

Those new models have not yet become "dominant". My central premise is, however, is that many on the left and right seem to believe we must embrace the left's status quo. I, on the other hand, believe our salvation will not come in duplicating their model, but in creating a new paradigm for our own activism.