Sunday, March 14, 2010

Is Twitter really fundamental to democracy?

Twitter is probably the most over-hyped tool on the Internet, possibly due to the vast array of celebrities that share their interesting, and often not so interesting, thoughts (and promote themselves) with a rather large audience. It is certainly the fastest growing Web 2.0 tool, in terms of uptake at least, and a great source of information. From F1, to cricket, to who is visiting Downing Street, to what offers are on in your local branch of Top Shop, its there and perhaps easier to access than the range of different pages you would need to access from your PC or mobile phone to get the same level of up to date information. There is also the commentary provided by some on their daily diet (for breakfast on March 17th 2009, Stephen Fry had a bowl of fruit) and the one sided @'whoever' conversations that are like listening to someone on the phone and trying to guess the topic. But it is both growing and has uses, but is it really enhancing democracy?

Talking to the BBC, Evan Williams says that it is. The key example of this, or least the one highlighted in the piece written for BBC Online, is that White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has signed up. Williams says "[He's] using it to give these sort of inside peeks from the White House and behind the scenes. He's definitely using it as part of their strategy and supporting Obama. So that seems important because it's really changing the game there." Oddly the tweets from @presssec are not exactly profound (see left) and very similar to the daily information feed that Downing Street offer that are about official visits and suggest little more than demonstrating the President is busy. Its all about image management basically and is both informational as well as political in reality.

So this is not really about democracy. It may demonstrate some air of transparency but this information could be found easily if wanted. What it does achieve is making it more accessible to a wider audience as you can choose to receive it directly rather than having to search the White House website. Interestingly those who are commenting on conditions in Iran or China are perhaps playing a greater role in true democracy but Williams, or the article's author, seem to overlook these.

Will Twitter aid democracy during the UK General Election, indications are not hugely positive. The majority of activity seems to be to make sustained attacks, or rebut enemies attacks, using a public feed to do so. Some may only receive one side of the argument of course, as they group around their own party's cheerleaders, however if you wished to gain a general overview of politics there seems little that is designed to enhance participation. Labour's #mob monday is designed to mobilise activists and there have been a few 'doorstep' references that are parties trying to get momentum behind local campaigning. But really this is about self promotion in the lead up to an important electoral contest, not about the promotion of voting. Parties may say there is a link between the two, others might not; I can see some of this being engaging but at other times being hugely off-putting - like with everything on Twitter, it depends who you follow! Thus such claims are rather bold, and suggest believing your own hype. Sure, if it can be used to make political decision making more transparent or allow suppressed voices within authoritarian regimes to be heard internationally it is a great tool. But largely that represents a small percentage of content and there is no aggregator that separates serious campaigning political communication from election communication designed to persuade an audience. Some sections of the Twitter audience will switch on to global politics, some to party politics, some to celebrities, sports and their friends; they will choose how Twitter is to be used for them and the majority usage in terms of content and follows may determine how the tool is perceived as a way of communicating messages, to whom and what content is appropriate given the audience. As with every new online tool it has potential, but that potential is both positive and negative and there are multiple uses; what is heard will determine how the tool is perceived and what sort of individuals choose to use it.

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