Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=99627
Story Retrieval Date: 5/19/2013 8:28:36 AM CST
WASHINGTON -- It didn’t take long this week for the controversy over veteran journalist Gwen Ifill’s first book, due out Inauguration Day, to hit the micro-blog Twitter. Within hours, the host of Thursday’s vice-presidential debate, and her book about Barack Obama and other African American politicians, became one of the most talked about topics on the site’s new election page.
Some took to the site to vent: “VP Moderator Gwen Ifill is writing a positive book on Barack Obama. Why then would she be selected as the moderator?”
Others, to fight back: “Republicans are massive whiners. ‘Nancy Pelosi's a big meanie!’ ‘Gwen Ifill's writing a book about Obama!" (Even though she isn't). [sic] whaa wha.”
At first glance, Twitter may seem like just another destination for people looking to ramble. The site is booming, though. In the past 12 months, traffic has shot up 2100 percent, according to Matt Tatham, director of media relations at the Internet monitoring firm Hitwise.com.
With its foray into presidential politics, www.election.twitter.com, which debuted in time for last Friday’s presidential debate, the Web site is providing a “kind of live window into the pulse of Twitter’s users as they respond to what’s going on in the political arena,” said Micah Sifry, an editor at Techpresident.com, a blog about technology and the 2008 campaign.
The response to the election site was huge, Sifry said. During the 90-minute debate, registrations to the site jumped 135 percent compared to the same time the previous week.
Users got especially busy when the conversation turned to Iraq, according to data released by Twitter. Traffic also spiked when the subject of taxes came up, and following John McCain’s assertion that “the average South Korean is three inches taller than the average North Korean.”
So exactly what is Twitter anyway, and how does it work?
The best way to think about Twitter is as a way to text message over the Internet. When users sign into the election page, a field on the screen asks them the simple question, “What do you think?” Below, a box provides them 140 characters of text -- about the length of a text message -- to respond. The page constantly updates as responses are posted, much like the tickers used by cable news stations.
When a user posts an answer it also goes to his or her profile page, which anyone and everyone is free to follow. Barack Obama, for instance, has nearly 90,000 followers on Twitter. John McCain, just over 1,700.
Users can also receive updates from those they are following on the Twitter site itself, on their phones as a text message, as email, or on other social networking sites, such as Facebook.
The election page is an offshoot of Twitter.com, where instead of being asked “What do you think?” users are asked “What are you doing?”
Who is on Twitter anyway, and what does it offer voters?
Twitter won’t say how many users it has, but estimates place the number around 3 million. As for the profile of the average user, “The people I have seen use Twitter the most are young, tech savvy, and politically inclined,” said Julie Barko Germany, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University.
According to Germany, “The potential is quite high for a site like Twitter to be used this election to get people out to vote, to persuade people, or to share a different perspective about the candidates or the election.”
She said the average voter could have skipped the first debate, and just turned to Twitter for a play-by-play of what happened.
Sifry sees the site as a tool for organization. “The place where Twitter has the greatest political potential,” he said, “is in helping people coordinate quick responses.”
He cited this summer’s “don’t go” movement, when Twitter was flooded by posts from users seeking to force a vote on new oil drilling during the House’s recess in August.
“The ‘don’t go’ movement was a moment for a lot of online conservatives to discover each other,” Sifry said. “It showed how several thousand people could coordinate quickly and without any centralized command headquarters.”
Twitterers also organized en masse late in September, Sifry said, when John McCain announced he would suspend his campaign to return to Washington to work on the bailout plan. In just minutes, Sifry said, “thousands of people in effect started thumbing their nose at McCain” by joking about how they were going to suspend their own work.
What about politicians? How are they using the site?
Quite simply, “not very well,” according to Germany. The problem, she said, is they want to use the site to link to mass produced, tightly-controlled messages, such as new ads or press releases, “and that’s just not very effective.”
A recent post by the Obama campaign, for example, read “Just launched a 'Next Generation Veterans for Obama' video on YouTube.” The post was followed by a link to the ad. As for volume, the Obama campaign has posted more than 200 times. The McCain campaign has posted on eight occasions.
Germany said that despite their struggles to adapt to Twitter, the candidates must be on such social networking sites “because if they don’t do it they seem like they’re out of touch.”
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