Twitter seems to have been setting the Wokingham local election campaign trail alight the last few weeks.
I nearly missed the Wokingham Times article this week about local election tweeting– but for, ironically, a tweet alerting me to it. I was interviewed for the piece about a week back, so the fact that I had forgotten all about it should stand as a testament to how busy I’ve been this week.
But yes, the local election has seen a surge of Wokingham borough’s councillors and budding politicians take to the internet and engage in a deep and passionate discussion of local policy. Or maybe not. Before I go on, here are my comments to the Times:
“Twitter user Matthew Dent, who is standing for election in Wargrave for Labour, said while there are not many election candidates to communicate with on Twitter, the interaction with residents had been useful.
“Mr Dent said: ‘It is about gauging people’s feelings on issues.
“‘It is very hard to discuss policy in 140 characters, but issues such as the bins are easier.
“‘The wokyrubbish hashtag is being used a lot and it allows you to have conversations with other Twitter users about what the problems are.‘“
I was a reluctant Twitter user at first. It took me a while to get into it, and become the tweeting virtuoso I am now. To expand on what I said to the Times, Twitter has its uses and its problems in pretty much equal measure.
On the one hand, it’s a good way to reach local residents who might not be reached by traditional campaigning techniques. Over the couple of years I’ve been using it I’ve built up an interesting network of contacts, and it can make for some very interesting mass discussions.
The example of the waste scheme is a good one, to that effect. The hashtag, a creation of the Wokingham Times, linked together many people’s complaints and comments on the scheme and made it easy to get a picture (a partial picture, perhaps) of public opinion.
But one obvious drawback is that the picture is partial. In many ways, this is a drawback of any canvassing method. You can’t talk to everyone, so you cannot get a truly accurate version of popular opinion. And, indeed, Twitter use tends towards a certain type of social, tech-savvy individual- slanting the sample.
Another problem is the size limit. 140 characters is not much, which makes for a good deal of creativity. But it can also pare down discussions to their most basic level, which isn’t always…helpful.
There’s also the aspect of how you use it. Wokingham MP John Redwood is, for some reason unknown to me, considered a skilled user of Twitter- despite, as far as I can see, only using it as an alert system for new posts on his blog. Personally, I prefer to combine political discussion and blog-alerting with general life. “Tweeting human”, as the phrase goes. Canvassing people directly through Twitter can be an irritation and increase hostility- but using it to communicate with people can do just the opposite.
I don’t keep separate Twitter accounts for campaigning and personal use. I think that residents and voters being able to see me as a real person, not just a canvassing machine, will help them relate to me, and make them feel more comfortable talking to me about local issues. With the rubbish fiasco, that has really paid off.
So what is Twitter? Well, it’s a campaign tool. A very effective one, in the right hands and with the right strategy, but certainly not a replacement for good, old-fashioned pavement pounding.