Members of Congress are not harnassing the communicative power of Twitter

“Constituent” has been reduced to “one-armed bandit.” When the time comes the candidate pulls the lever. Sometimes there is money; sometimes not. But that does not discourage the addict. They keep yanking on the arm.

Is there something one might add to this communication that would be both more humane and more productive for both candidate and constituent? Twitter is one possibility. About half of the members of congress now have a Twitter account. Since I do research and teach about new media and politics I follow congressional accounts, and they are not being used very effectively.

With a Twitter account you can have followers. Followers are individuals who have signed up to receive all of the messages you send. The members of congress with Twitter accounts have an average of about 4500 followers. Each follower receives each message. 4500 seems like a big number, but compared to the number of voters in a district it is pretty paltry reach. But there is magic to Twitter messaging, and it is called retweeting. Retweeting is quoting with attribution. You send me a message, and I decide to pass it on. So I send a message that says this is what my member of congress had to say. Since constituents have followers -- the average for those who are themselves tweeting is about 1,000 -- everytime they retweet a message from a member of congress it goes to those thousand followers. If every message is retweeted by each follower the reach has moved from 4,500 to 4,500,000 per tweet. That begins to be a pretty big number.

So how are members of congress doing when it comes to retweeting? Not very well. The average is one retweet for each message sent. The average reach just went from 4,500 to 5,500. It is better than nothing, but it is not very impressive. The highest I have found was an average of 10 per message, which is still not terrific.

The election is upon us. One might think members of congress would want to reach deeply into their constituency. Why settle for a reach of 5,500 instead of 4,500,000? That question is why don't constituents retweet. After all, it is very easy. All they have to do is click on a button and it is done. The general answer is the messages from members of congress are rather like the bulletin board by the elevator I ride to get to my office. I glance at it when I am waiting for the elevator, but that's it. I cannot get very interested in messages that tell me the member is going to be some place or other in the district or other such. You need to send me a message that interests me. If you do not then I am exceedingly unlikely to send your message on to my followers.

What are the obvious recommendations. First, be human and not a bulletin board. Politicians are usually very good at interpersonal relations. Act as though Twitter is interpersonal relations. One of the things that means is interaction. You have to do more than pronouncements. Second, people interested enough in politics to follow a member of congress generally want to know that something good [or bad] is going on in D.C. and what it means for them. Take responsibility: I did, we did this, and here is what it means to you. Third, ask them to help get the word out. Someone is systematically misleading the public. Help me get the truth out to everyone. Fourth, cultivate your constituents and they will feel better about you, and they will want to help as the election approaches. But you cannot start a week before the election or a month before the election. This is an every day job. And you might get your reach up to a surprising number.

G. R. Boynton is a professor in new media and politics at the University of Iowa.