For better or for worse Twitter has taken over our politics. Over the course of a just a few months tweeting politicians have gone from being an odd curiosity to the norm. This spring and summer gave us a number of major news stories that started out on Twitter. Both the Nation and the Washington Times managed to agree that Iran was having a “Twitter revolution,” a Utah Republican managed to scoop his own Senate campaign by prematurely announcing his run in a tweet and Charles Grassley foreshadowed the anger many feel about President Obama’s healthcare proposals with his angry tweet. And who here in Virginia can forget former GOP Chairman Jeff Frederick’s disastrous tweet that may have given away the state senate.
But for all the hype, does Twitter actually do anything to make politicians more accessible to their constituents or to increase government transparency? After all, how much can you actually say in 140 characters?
Done well, yes. Politicians from both sides of the aisle successfully use Twitter to reach out to voters and inform them of what they are up to. Two leading examples of this are John Culberson, a Texas Republican Representative, and Claire McCaskill, a Democratic Senator from Missouri. Culberson was one of the very first adopters of Twitter in the House and is a leader of the House Republican New Media Caucus. He is the most active user of Twitter in the House. McCaskill is the most active tweeter in Senate and is the most followed in the Senate as well, aside from John McCain, who amassed hundreds of thousands of followers during last year’s campaign. Both of them use Twitter to give their constituents a peek into their lives in Congress and their political philosophies. They comment on major issues before them and engage in conversations with other users. Basically, they are successful Twitter users because they leverage the service to make it easy for their constituents to follow them and understand what they are up to.
But how can people follow all of these politicians who are using Twitter to communicate? One of the biggest innovations in following tweeting politicians is a service called Tweet Congress. The founders of the site say “This site is a grass-roots effort to get our men and women in Congress to open up and have a real conversation with us.” They have done the work of figuring out which members of Congress are using Twitter and have built an interface to keep track of all of them. They allow users to keep track of every tweet from any member of Congress and search through them as well. Users can see what the most popular topics being tweeted about right now, see photos that have been posted to Twitter by members and see an archive of videos posted by members. Finally, it allows interested Twitter users to join the community and comment on the goings on of members of Congress.
Even more exciting is the fact that the technology behind TweetCongress is now being made available to state level groups to create Twitter directories for state legislatures. The first of these is TweetIllinois. Although Twitter usage is lower at the state level than at the federal level, there are still a surprising number. Plus, state level politicians are harder to find, so a directory for them has more value to regular citizens. TweetIllinois and other similar sites will provide a new public forum that will allow members of the community to interact with their representatives.
If used well Twitter can be a valuable resource for politicians and voters alike. Here’s hoping more politicians take it up and take it seriously.