It's almost the year 2012, and all of our elected officials are expected to be well acquainted with social media, or at least to have hired people who can fake it for them. And, proving that politicians are essentially just like us, they take a variety of tacks in using social media to get the message out. To illustrate, I offer this admittedly anecdotal sample of U.S. Senators and Representatives, each of whom illustrates a specific Twittering type.
The PR feed
Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi illustrates what's by far the lowest common denominator of political social media: just using your Twitter feed as a place to stick your press releases. Just look at this sorry stream of links, mostly to press releases put out by his office, some to videos of him being interviewed on TV, occasionally to a relevant news article. The tweets are actually double-posted from Facebook, which means that some of the text is cut off, too. This is the sort of stuff that 20 years ago would have been faxed out to various news outlets, I guess, but now it's all on Twitter, so it's kind of futuristic.
The Gallant to the PR feed's Goofus is the elected official who actually interacts with other Twitter users. Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota is good example: his feed is full of retweets of responses to fellow Twitterers -- sometimes agreeing with them, sometimes not. Of course, there's no telling for sure that it's the Congressman doing the talking here, but with this kind of high-level interaction it seems more likely.
Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is currently running for the Republican nomination for President, and is a profoundly polarizing political figure -- people either love her or hate her, largely because of her strongly held and often controversial political views. But you'd never know that from her Twitter feed, which seems to have been put through some special filter so that only the blandest topics can be discussed. Seeing her in the GOP debates might send you into a rage-frenzy, but can you argue against fighting cyber attacks, promoting adoption, helping the Red Cross bring succor to soldiers overseas, or raising awareness of lung cancer? Maybe she saves all her controversial stuff for her secret Tumblr, I don't know.
Here's my rule of thumb when trying to parse political Twitter feeds: If you see anything snarky or mean, you can bet it's from the politician him- or herself and not a staffer. Not because politicians have some kind of monopoly on snark or meanness, but because professional communications people avoid that tone like the plague. That's why I'm assuming these little digs really are coming from Senator John McCain of Arizona.
Twitter's 140-character limit encourages brevity. That's why you have to be impressed when someone writes tweets that are coherent, complete sentences. Not everything in the Twitter feed of Senator Mel Martinez of Florida is as carefully as those two tweets above, but his feed is definitely better written than most. Of course, this almost certainly indicates that these things are being written by a staffer -- hopefully a Senator doesn't have time to fiddle with sentence structure to make it both well-written and perfectly succinct.
At the other end of the spectrum you have people like Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who embrace Twitter-speak in all its baffling glory, full of abbreviations and intrusive hashtags. It's more efficient in terms of conveying information, but it's still a little unsettling to see a U.S. Senator write "2" for "to" like he's writing out the lyrics to a Prince song. (It's also possible that his office has hired a 14-year-old to serve as Twitterer in chief.)
Some politicians just can't commit to a regular Twitter diet, but can't bring themselves to turn away from it either. Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma did a bit of tweeting just after the 2008 election, then, nearly three years later, jumped back on to endorse Rick Perry for the Republican presidential nomination, only to stay silent for the next three months and counting. Look for him to next offer his opinion on whatever it is everyone in politics will get worked up about in 2015.
Congressman John Culbertson of Texas came back to Twitter after an extended absence to say he might stick around, assuming the site's problems with trolls and spammers have been taken care of. That was back in August and he hasn't followed up on it, so we must assume that trolls and spammers are still in full effect on the site.
Most politicians probably come into office dreaming of changing the world, but real politics often involves nitty-gritty focus on details that seem trivial to most of us but are important to some constituents. Senator Susan Collins of Maine, for instance, has been thinking about nothing since the beginning of November but the regulation of heavy trucks on interstate highways, or at least that's the impression you'd get from her Twitter feed.
Other politicians use their Twitters to reveal their obsessions outside the political realm. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, for instance, likes collegiate volleyball. He really, really likes it. Everyone needs a hobby, I guess.