Recently, I came across a fascinating article written for the Australian Journal of Political Science called “Digital Dialogue? Australian Politicians’ use of the Social Network Tool Twitter“, by Will Grant, Brenda Moon and Janie Busby Grant.
The article looked at the different ways that politicians are using Twitter in the real world, and the most “effective” ways for politicians of all stripes to use it.
One of the co-authors, Will Grant from the Australian National University, kindly agreed to be interviewed about the article and its findings.
Interview with Dr Will Grant – Politicians Use of Twitter
How did you came to co-author the “Politicians’ use of Twitter” paper?
Our overarching goal in this research (it also involves some other projects) is to get a better understanding of how ideas flow through social networks. As part of this, Twitter gives us a great ability to watch conversations and the flow of ideas. So, to start getting a handle on the bigger problem, we wanted to see how politicians are trying to spread their ideas on Twitter.
In the paper you emphasise the “conversation” aspect of Twitter – do you think Twitter is more suited to conversations than Facebook or other social networks?
It certainly feels this way to me! The two things that most make it open to conversation are that it is largely public, and that tweets are limited in length. The fact that it is public means that people are able to converse with people outside of their pre-existing networks, and others can join in / watch that conversation. I’ve watched a number of really stimulating conversations between high level experts. The limit in length means people have to reduce their comment to the very core of their idea – which is perfect for starting a conversation. Of course, it isn’t perfect – unless you are poetically skilled, it’s quite poor at conveying nuance, for instance.
When you looked at politicians’ tweets, did they generally embrace having conversations, or were they averse (i.e. broadcasters only)? Who stood out on either side?
Some conversed, some didn’t. Table 5 of the paper shows the most conversational, but ‘least conversational’ is a little less meaningful (ie, did they just not tweet, or did they broadcast a lot?). However, those who stood out as broadcasters (people who did tweet a fair bit (>100 tweets), but didn’t converse can be seen in this attached image (with conversational ratio being (replies + retweets) / total tweets. 0 means not conversational at all, 1 means all conversation.)
Do you need a large media profile to garner success on Twitter (e.g. is it only leaders, premiers, ministers who get followed)? Are there examples of rank and file MPs who succeed on Twitter?
You don’t need a large media profile. In fact, I think Twitter can be a great way for lower ranked politicians to get more exposure. Our Table 4 of Most retweeted politicians includes Kate Lundy and Lee Rhiannon, neither of whom have that significant a mainstream media profile (that is, they certainly wouldn’t make the top 10 list of Media Monitors most mentioned politicians).
What do you think the criteria for “success” is when politicians use Twitter? Followers? @ s? Retweets? Klout? Something else? What makes a good tweet?
There’s multiple criteria – we tried to get a couple of different measures of this. We didn’t use Klout, but I’m sure it would be useful. I think the three key criteria are getting your ideas out there / framing the discussion, building positive relationships, and gaining more engaged / faster feedback from citizens. Retweets, etc give some idea of how successful politicians are at getting their ideas out there, and a positive relationship appears associated with conversation. But the ways politicians get feedback is harder to assess.
A good tweet is not the same as a good tweeter – a good tweet can just be a new insertion of knowledge (eg, the first image of that plane crashing in the Hudson) – this doesn’t make the person a good tweeter, or likely to benefit enormously in the long term.
What benefits are there for politicians using Twitter? Is it better for them to focus on opinion leaders (journos) or the community (constituents)? Or is listening a key benefit (as you suggested with Bligh and Hockey)?
I still do think that listening is a key benefit. I don’t think there’s much point in big politicians focusing on journos, as they can easily talk to journos through normal channels. Medium level politicians probably would benefit from talking to opinion leaders on twitter more though.
Overall, what lessons do you think politicians should draw from using Twitter – especially ones who are not yet using it?
If you have tiny bits of time, get involved. It’s the fastest way to communicate what you’re doing / thinking about, and the fastest way of finding out what Australia is talking about. Moreover, any conversation you have on Twitter will be listened to by thousands more.