Politicians bow to the power of 140 characters

Last updated 09:52 01/10/2012

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OPINION: In New Zealand there is argument on the appropriate attention paid to political bloggers. No-one doubts, though, that they have had a recent role shaping the New Zealand political narrative.

But in the United States, the age of the political blog appears to have passed and it is now the age of Twitter.

Most commentators agree that Twitter has further accelerated and intensified the news cycle. The jury is out on whether it represents a step towards greater citizen involvement in politics.

At a seminar on the influence of social media on the presidential election held at the Democrat Convention, Garance Franke-Ruta - a senior editor for the Atlantic - opened by declaring the 'last [electoral] cycle was all about blogs and the incremental journalism of blogs. This cycle we have really a Twitter campaign where a lot of the conversation has moved off the blogs on to Twitter, especially for political insiders'.

Two young expatriate New Zealanders working in this field in the US agree. Sam Weston, communications director for digital company Huge, considers the influence of the citizen bloggers peaked as far back as the 2004 presidential election, when blogs 'provided a counter-narrative especially for the Left'.

Hamish McKenzie, a reporter for tech blog Pandodaily who writes on the impact of social media on politics, says the political blogs, from being the 'first and fast reactors' have been made 'almost obsolete by Twitter'.

Twitter advocates have big numbers on their side.

Adam Sharp, with the barely tweetable job title of head of government, news and social innovation at Twitter, noted there had been 360,000 tweets on the two party conventions in 2008.

The total for both conventions this year was nearly 14 million. Mitt Romney's speech peaked at 14,000 tweets a minute; Michelle Obama in her convention speech doubled that to 28,000; and Barack Obama took it up to 54,000.

Mr Sharp argues these numbers are evidence of 'a return to retail politics , the idea that people can be directly engaged in the political process on a one-on- one basis again, not only interacting with the candidate and issues but with one another'.

He claims Twitter is showing the moments when "people across the country . . . were turning to people next to them on the proverbial global couch and saying, 'Did you see that?' ' He goes on to contend that social media analytics are 'measuring for the first time natural conversation . . . that a cycle ago would have been behind the closed doors of coffee shops and office water coolers'.

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McKenzie is sceptical about the meaningfulness of these numbers arguing they are crude measures and there is not yet any 'credible analytic framework to gauge sentiment".

Everyone agrees that the main impact of Twitter has been to speed up the news cycle. Mr Sharp had a very tweetable soundbite on this - "we have shifted from a 24 hours news cycle to a 140-character one".

Franke-Ruta gave the example of how Mr Romney made a joke about no-one ever asking to see his birth certificate. This was tweeted after three minutes, was on the Politico website after four minutes, video was available on Buzzfeed after five minutes and the Romney team had a clarifying statement out in 21 minutes. Twitter has certainly challenged the status of post- event punditry. Mr Sharp notes that the peak Twitter moment for convention speeches is the minute they finish and tweets then tail off really fast.

Joe Rospars, the head of Obama's digital campaign, argued at the seminar that Twitter has made 'the elite conversation a much bigger spectacle now'.

He wryly noted that previously after a big speech, attention turned to the three or four pundits on each television channel but now "it's not just these people but everyone who has ever been on television all weighing in at once online'.

There is certainly a risk that Twitter will lead to ever faster-moving but ever more shallow politics.

Weston notes that there is work and thought in most blogs whereas Twitter is instant and easy. McKenzie notes that as stories emerge faster and burn out faster, full consideration of their importance is lost.

McKenzie was uncertain when asked whether blogs would cede influence to Twitter in New Zealand any time soon. Smartphone penetration is lower in New Zealand and there will always be fewer tweets forcing a media response.

He also considers the much narrower ideological range of media in New Zealand leaves room for the political blogs that doesn't exist in the US. Meaning 2014 might not be a Twitter election in New Zealand.

* Stephen Mills is the executive director of Wellington-based UMR Research. He is travelling in the US where he is following the presidential election campaign.

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