Social Media Denial
Posted February 10th, 2011 by Derek McBurney in Civic engagement, Technology
Previous article: All Quiet About Consumption
Is social media influential?
I still hear people debate whether social media, and in particular twitter, has any influence in the 'real world'. After the Naheed Nenshi mayoral victory, I'm surprised such a debate continues to exist in Calgary, but I am willing to accept that perhaps I am a little too stuck in my online world, and that twitter really is a more isolated community than I thought. But who makes up the twitter community?
The real world uses twitter, too
I always chuckle at the idea that twitter doesn't represent the real world. Like those of us on twitter are fictional, or that we spend so much time on it we don't have time to engage in conversation outside the medium. Wil Wheaton aside, I think we can all agree that users of twitter are living, breathing human-beings who make up part of the fabric that is the real world. However, there is a point to be made that those on twitter make up a very small percentage of the population, and maybe that's what's meant by twitter not having an impact on the 'real-world' since it represents such a small subset of it. But can the medium's influence be ignored because it's a smaller demographic of people?
To answer that, we need to find out who are the ones spending their time talking amongst themselves in 140 characters. It's hard to say really, as it all depends on who you follow. I would like to say it represents a perfect slice of those of us who use the internet, but is that really the case? Here's a completely unscientific approach to collecting some data around this: Search for your friends and family on twitter. Now search for politicians. Municipal. Provincial. Federal. Finally, search for the news media. Organizations. News anchors. Columnists. Do you notice anything?
No, of course you didn't. You never listened to me and didn't follow any of those steps. Fortunately I've got your back, and I have noticed something. While searching for my friends and family, I've only found a handful. I suppose it's possible my friends and family are all too cool for me, because I found that maybe at most, 20% of them use Twitter. Politicians? 73% of Calgary's Alderman use twitter, and frequently too, many times right from the Council chambers. A staggering 47.1% of Canadian MPs are on twitter. 31.3% of Albertan MLA's, and more are climbing aboard every day. Getting a percentage of those in the media on twitter is impossible, but from my small sample space, they are all over it. Try finding a writer of a Calgary newspaper article on twitter and chances are you will find them, and in most cases, they love to talk!
Here's a look at a 19 minute slice of my twitter feed as the results of the city council vote on the airport underpass came in. It's like we were all in a room having a discussion, when it's possible that some of us were in the check out line at a grocery store, at the bar trying to look more important than we actually are, on the couch watching TV, or out ruining a dinner with a significant other - the possibilities are endless! But if you think these online conversations don't spread outside the medium to shape opinion, well, then I am failing in making my article's point.
Where the action is
So if you have disproportionately high number of news makers and news media on twitter, what might you think the result would be? Well, I'm going to have to give some credit to Bryce Dudley for this article. Bryce works for Alderman Brian Pincott, and someone I'm always glad to bump into. When I proposed that twitter was key to Naheed Nenshi getting his name out, leading up to his electoral win, he theorized the reason twitter brought about such influence. Twitter's influence isn't necessarily due to the number of people using the medium, since that's still relatively small, but who is on it. News media clearly looks to twitter and engages in it at a rate higher than the rest of the population. Combine that with politicians in large numbers using the medium and getting tangled up in conversation with the rest of us, it's no wonder why what's being talked about on twitter, political or otherwise, seeps out into traditional media - often whether the journalists admit it or not.
To help validate my points about the power of twitter, I will stick to my theme of being completely unscientific, and cite a web-based poll to make a point. According to this poll, 46% of people think that twitter is an effective campaign tool. Now this poll was conducted online, so that result is likely to be skewed a little in favour of its effectiveness, but I'm sure the number of people who actually think social media is effective is somewhere in that ballpark. It reminds me of a "poll" from I believe the Onion saying something like "50% of Americans think the country is too divided". If 46% of people think twitter is effective in political campaigns, then it's 100% effective. 46% of the electorate is a huge percentage. That's higher than what the Green Party would have needed to add to their percentage of the votes in the 2008 federal election to go from 0 seats to 211, the largest majority government of all time. If just a few more percentage points of the electorate become aware of a political candidate because of their prevalence on twitter, that cannot be ignored.
People are finding their voice
Social media gives people a stronger voice. People have referred to it as the democratization of the internet, because the internet is a platform in which we are all equally as loud. If I want to get a hold of the ear of our federal cabinet ministers, traditionally I could try phoning their office or leaving an email, but I'd be lucky if I hear directly from the minister themselves.
And about 10 minutes later (your results may vary, especially now that he's being flooded by 'usage-based billing' tweets)
The fact that it's possible to have this kind of direct communication, not dumb-downed and filtered through the minister's communication staff, is amazing, and as people expose themselves to this medium, they will only want more of it. It will do wonders to fight political apathy, as those who never thought they had a voice, might begin to change their minds. It is the democratization of the internet, and also helping the democracy of our nation. It's making our politicians more accessible and accountable, simply because politicians who ignore the medium may be shunned at the polls by those who are in conversation on it. There's no wonder why news media has taken notice. The small group of twitter users is growing every day, and as people get a taste for what is has to offer, there will be no going back. Innovation has allowed for a highly-scalable medium that brings everyone that much closer. Not everyone may be using the medium, but it's power and influence can no longer be ignored. It's why shutting down the internet in Egypt was one of the first government responses to the wide-spread protests.
So you can refute social media's influence all you want, but you may be left confused as to why a political candidate or party you never really heard of appeared to 'come from no-where' in popularity. You can also ignore using the medium, but you may only be silencing yourself as the world increasingly looks toward the accessibility, scalability and power of instant conversation for its voice.