An exploration of political conversation over Twitter, with a decidedly tongue-in-cheek approach to what the author refers to as "Electile Dysfunction."
Chasing Glenn Beck
In today’s rancorous environment, meaningful political dialogue is all but dead, ushered into an early grave by extremists. As the disenfranchised, we see no way out of the din. Why do the loudest voices of the very few continue to dominate our political conversations – and why does it matter?
Our politicians pander to this vocal and highly agitated group of voters while the rest of us are ignored. This has very real consequences: our center shifts rightward, theocratic messages creep into politics and we become an angry, bullying body politic, ignoring reason while embracing factless “truths.” Thanks to social media like Twitter, all of it happens faster than ever before.
As a professional with experience in social networking, knowledge management and marketing, I decided to conduct an undercover experiment on Twitter aimed at throwing a monkey wrench into the political meme machine. I began tweeting small absurdities: Glenn Beck is an actor. Glenn Beck is an environmentalist. Glenn Beck is a… liberal.
My .BeckIsALib account was meant to coax people out of their belief-driven shells and back into a reality where reasoned people could have reasoned conversations. If we don’t find our way there, if we continue to let the loudest voices define us, then we risk no less than the loss of our truest visions for democracy: equality, fairness through compromise, and the right to be heard – and represented. Twitter, operating as it does at light speed, can help or hinder, either silencing our voices or expanding them.
I’m sitting here early on a Sunday morning thinking about the recent week’s effort. It’s very quiet. One of my two dogs, Kayda, a nine-year-old standard poodle, lies on her bed next to me in my upstairs office, softly snoring and occasionally running in place as she chases after a dream-generated squirrel. The other, Zoe, a rescued mutt with an abundance of herding instinct, mottled fur, and blue eyes, is downstairs lying on the couch which, fortunately, is the same color as her fur. She sheds. I have a cup of coffee in front of me and am still in my robe. It’s barely seven o’clock. My wife just left, heading off to Peterborough where she’ll meet up with a friend and then head over to the Episcopalian church on Concord Street.
Week Two ended with a whole lot of “Tuesday, nothing.” No traction, no new followers, no increased Klout. For the last few days I’ve been trying out a new strategy but have resisted the urge to check my stats. While I didn’t want to break my rules, it rapidly became clear that I had to. “Tuesday, nothing,” just wasn’t where I wanted to be.
Twitter is enormous. I knew that, but didn’t anticipate how easily my tweets would be swallowed up, digested, and tossed aside. Thinking that I could just drop in a few tweets here and there was, as Julia Roberts might say, a “Big mistake. Big. Huge!” Twitter requires that you work the system if you want to be heard. I decided to do just that and I don’t feel bad about it in the least.
Okay, maybe I feel a little bad about it, but the goal of this exercise (or at least one of them) is to seed an idea into the Twitterverse in a way that gets some people somewhere to imagine that idea as possibility. While I hoped that a solitary meme dropped into the marketplace of ideas would take off, the truth is that it never had a real chance. Such memes are rare and, when they do take root, require time to grow.
On the other hand, new and strange concepts are marketed all the time. (That’s pretty much all Glenn Beck does, isn’t it?) What’s wrong with pushing the idea, working the system, and trying to build something instead of hoping it just builds itself?
So I went ahead—as I said, feeling a little bad about it—and broke the rules, and now, in the middle of Week Three, I decide to check my stats.
Things have changed quite a bit. My follower count sits at thirty-five, up from six, and my Klout is up to twenty-eight. I’ve been mentioned in others’ tweets a total of seventeen times, and have had two retweets.
If I’d had a bit more coffee, I’d feel positively giddy.
Drilling down into my Klout score reveals that I am now “influential to a tightly formed network that is growing larger” and someone who is “more likely to have their message amplified than the average person.” I have a “strong true reach!” So what does it all mean? I have no clue. On the one hand, there’s that giddiness. On the other, I feel a bit like Navin Johnson when the new telephone books arrived, naively excited at seeing his name in print.
I fueled my growth with just a few changes. First I started following other Twitterers. For the last three days I’ve targeted about forty to fifty people each day, mostly by doing searches on interesting tags and phrases (glennbeck being the obvious one, but I also searched on Tea Party, conservative, and even libtard). I found an interesting mix of people from the right side of the aisle and I was pleased to discover only a few that were frightening. What struck me most was that, even though some views were extreme (birther claims, 9/11 conspiracy theorists) and some mere parroting (liberal media complaints, Obamacare misconceptions), the overall tone of the conversation was surprisingly polite. I didn’t really expect that—which obviously says more about me than about those tweeting. Turns out I, too, can be a biased, judgmental jackass. Who knew?
Rather than the stereotypes drilled into my head by others, I discovered instead a large community of decent people who just happened to disagree with me (sometimes strongly) on a number of issues. @RonWitherspoon, for example, is a reasonably gentle looking middle-aged man from the Southwest. He loves hockey and football, reads philosophy, and listens to Shostakovich. He quotes Aristotle. This is a guy I’d want to hang out with. His tweets are thoughtful and reasoned, oriented largely around the deficit and the desire to unseat what he sees as a too-liberal agenda. He does his research and rarely, if ever, rants. He’s also got a pretty droll sense of humor:
RonWitherspoon: According to Drudge, Jesse Ventura would consider joining a Ron Paul for President ticket. What could possibly go wrong?
Another follower I’ve grown fond of is @Escape. I’ve had several interesting conversations with him and, again, was surprised to realize just how pervasive my own biases are. He has an interesting, well-written blog (which he admits to being a series of “rants”), and he, too, does his homework. He’s willing to engage on ideas he doesn’t agree with. @Escape is strong-minded and requires a fair bit of convincing, but he too remains polite and thoughtful. I enjoy our exchanges.
Not all followers are quite so civil, particularly if they’re representing a group with an agenda. That’s where the Twitterverse can get really mean. Maybe it’s because people can hide behind an organization and so don’t feel personally responsible for what they tweet about. Anonymity is a powerful shield when one needs it to be. The Nevada Republican Liberty Caucus, for example, shouts out tweets like this:
Nevada_RLC: NEW INFORMATION!! Massacre of 800 to 1,000 Catholics in Ivory Coast likely work of Islamists. #gop #liberty
What the tweet —and the accompanying biased webpage—fail to say is that the Ivory Coast is in the middle of a horrendous civil war and that those who were slaughtered were in an overwhelmingly Muslim part of the country. The tweet could have read “Tragic loss of life in middle of Ivory Coast civil war,” but that wouldn’t have done as much to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S.
In addition to building my follower list, I’ve also decided to change my engagement strategy. I am no longer focusing only on Beckian tweets; that will come later. I’ve decided to join the com-munity; rather than just trying to communicate my ideas I am instead engaging in conversations. It turns out that talking is a good practice. When people learn about each other, they can often find common ground—which then provides an opening for them to hear what you really want to say.
Engaging in the Twittersphere means replying to tweets, retweeting others’ tweets, and participating not only in the con-versations I want to have, but in the conversations others want to have with me. Here’s an example of a recent back-and-forth between myself and @JonDegruder, another Republican exploring the potential 2012 GOP candidates:
BeckisALib: Obama proves we need a Pres with real experience and brains. Who do we have for 2012? Palin: no experience; Romney: no brains. Who else?
JonDegruder: @BeckIsALib Herman Cain? Tim Pawlenty? I don’t know. Herman Cain has business experience and has brains.
BeckIsALib: @JonDegruder Pawlenty, maybe. I’m keeping an eye out. Cain has no experience: business and government are very different.
JonDegruder : @BeckIsALib True - but he did say he kept his pizza chain out of bankruptcy. Pawlenty seems good, too. Will have to keep watch.
Developing relationships also helps when Friday rolls around. Fridays are special days in the Twitterverse. Referred to as “Follower Fridays” (and often abbreviated simply as “FF”), Friday has become the day when tweeters recommend others to follow. A typical Follower Friday tweet looks something like this:
HolyCow412 #FF @Kennyhertz @magirl17 @imwithyou @johdonne @clippership @taibo41 @liveordie @obamagirl8 @beckisalib @highwaves
The original tweeter, @HolyCow412, starts her tweet with “#FF” signaling a recommendation list, then follows with a bunch of Twitter @names. One of them is mine. In theory some of her followers will check me out and perhaps even choose to follow me, all based on her suggestion. The time spent in building relationships, finding new followers, and retweeting others starts to pay off when your name shows up on an #FF tweet. Such publicity invariably leads to still more followers. It’s an interesting and powerful convention.
The Follower Friday habit began in 2009 with a single tweet from Micah Baldwin. Now it’s a vital part of Twitterquette. There are even tools (such as FollowFridayHelper, which I use) to identify quickly those you interact with most often out of the thousands and thousands of tweets that fill up your timeline.
After #FFs, retweeting is probably the most potent way to get exposed to potential followers. I’ve been retweeting others quite a bit lately. According to Dan Zarella, an acknowledged social media expert who applies scientific methods to social networking phe-nomena, retweeting creates buzz, traffic, and followers, all of which I need. Retweeting is an amplifier with the potential to raise your voice to a Spinal-Tap-level “11.” Zarella also suggests that one of the easiest ways to increase your retweets is simply to ask—politely, of course. Apparently the use of the word “please” in your tweet (as in “please RT”) magnifies the likelihood of a retweet by a factor of six.
Starting tomorrow I’ll spend my afternoons begging.