How progressives can use Twitter: a strategic perspective (DRAFT)

DRAFT, CURRENTLY BEING REVISED SUBSTANTIALLY.   New recommendations here.  Thanks all for the feedback!

Final version to appear in The Exception.

Collaboratively authored with Tracy Viselli.

New media experts, journalists, conservatives, moms, feminists, and increasing numbers of politicians have all been using Twitter very effectively.  So problemchylde’s call for progressives to use the #rebelleft hashtag and Alan Rosenblatt’s proposal for a new #topprog “top progressives on Twitter” hashtag (link needed) kicked off a lot of discussion — on Twitter, and in the blogosphere.

Much of the conversation so far has been focused on implementation questions and experiments: What’s a good name?  How to use these hashtags to help with digging?  (1, 2, 3) These are certainly important questions (and we have our opinions on them), but risk losing the forest for the trees.  In this post, we’re going to step back and take a more strategic view.

Here are our recommendations.  Below the fold, we give some background and go into more detail.

  1. meetings, workshops, and conferences should have Twitter backchannels whenever possible.
  2. activists need to refine techniques for “flash actions” like Tracy’s experiments with #taxcuts and Jon’s with #digg it.  social computing technolgies are tools; we should learn to use them well, and use them for action.
  3. a new #p2 (“progressives 2.0”) hashtag can complement the existing #fem2, #woc, #lgbt, #topprog, and #rebelleft hashtags, and help progressives engage online with feminists, women of color, and lgbtq activists.
  4. we should reach out to conservatives and libertarians and explore whether constructive engagement is possible.

A lot of people write off Twitter before really understanding it, which is a shame because it’s got some real advantages as a communication tool.  For those who haven’t spent much time there, Twitter’s simultaneously a place for conversations and for broadcasting information.  Different people use Twitter in different ways: a news source, a chat room (the Monday evening #journchat is a great example), forwarding interesting links, crowdsourcing information like Twitter Vote Report, staying in touch with friends, and so on.  It’s evolving very rapidly — the Twitter environment today is quite different from how it was a year ago.

There are a lot of different “clients” for Twitter that allow you to use it in very specialized ways if that’s what you want.  For instance, TweetDeck allows you to divide your friends and followers into groups while twhirl allows you to tweet from more than one account and service at once.  It’s worth experimenting a little to see which you like.  *** reference to a getting started doc here *** If you’d like to check it out for a while before you sign up, you can follow the discussions via Twitter search.  A few  examples: #journchat, #fem2, #woc, #tcot, @maegancarberry, @punditmom, @digitalsista, @baratunde, @arimelber, @ricksanchezcnn, @myrnatheminx, @jdp23.

Because you can tweet* from a phone, Twitter’s great for providing updates from meetings or conferences.  The recent #fem2 and #soccomm conference Twittercasts are fine examples of how the two-way communication of a “backchannel” projected  during a panel discussion or speaker helps broaden the conversation.  So one straightforward recommendation is that meetings, workshops, and conferences should have Twitter backchannels whenever possible.  This is crucial both for letting people who can’t take the time off work and pay the fees to participate in an all-day conference participate — and to allow those who don’t live near DC or New York to take part on a more equal footing.**

#taxcuts and #digg it! illustrate another strategic possibility: Twitter as a nexus for “flash online actions” to get an issue highlighted in new and traditional media.   Last November’s #motrinmoms campaign, which made it from Twitter through the blogosphere and into to the New York Times in less than 48 hours, is a great example of Twitter as a tool for action.  Buzz on Twitter (it’s hip! it’s sexy!  it’s hot!) led to a glare of publicity and a quick response.

#taxcuts is a recent example of how to spread a political message quickly.  #taxcuts leveraged two qualities Twitter is known for;  quickness and humor.  Give the inhabitants of Twitter a topical message, event, or person they can make fun of, and you’ve got Twitter gold.  The news story of the day on Feburary 5th was becoming the Republican Senate’s insistence on more tax cuts in the American Recovery Act.  As two twitterers joked about the miraculous abilities of taxcuts, Tracy recognized the opportunity and immediately created a new hashtag–asking her followers to tweet about the amazing problems taxcuts could solve (global warming, death, poverty, etc.).

As a result of a few minutes work (and the right followers) #taxcuts quickly trended to the third spot on  Twitter, generating more than 35 pages of search results containing the hashtag #taxcuts.  With more preparation time and an action plan, approaches like this can be an effective way of directing energy to activist efforts.  To create successes like #taxcuts, you must be well positioned with the right followers who will follow your lead.  You also have to be quick — and it helps to be funny.

#digg it!, a proposal for how #fem2, #woc, and #topprog can cooperate to get votes for progressive stories on, also highlights another strategic possibility: Twitter can enable better online dialog and collaboration between progressives, feminists, and women of color. Twitter is far less male-dominated than the progressive blogosphere; and the ability to send a single tweet to multiple hashtags makes it easy for conversations to intersect.

Multiple hashtags introduce complexity as well.  Suppose a tweet is relevant to feminists, women of color, progressives, lgbtq activists, and others.  Including all the #fem2, #woc, #topprog, #rebelleft, and #lbtq hashtags leaves almost no room for content; but sending it to only a subset of the hashtags cuts some people out of the conversation.  Introducing an additional #p2 hashtag, shared between all these other groups, provides a path forward.

Including #p2 and at least one of the other hashtags lets people who are interested follow the “merged” conversation on #p2 and retweet as necessary to the other hashtags.  At the same time, people who are only interested in following one stream of the conversation don’t have to be overloaded with the other topics.  In particular, this approach can help keep #fem2 and #woc from being overwhelmed by broader discussions, while still making it easy for progressive feminists and women of color to participate on #topprog and #rebelleft.

More speculatively, Twitter could also be a good place to engage with forward-looking conservatives and libertarians.  #tcot (top conservatives on Twitter) and #topprog share some common interests: working with groups like #congresstweet to get legislators on Twitter; keeping trolls from drowning out useful conversation; and (more mundanely) common hashtags for specifying geography so people can find stories of local interest.

When this topic came up in the #topprog tweetup, there was a lot of skepticism among progressives about whether any real progress could be made, and so the decision was to defer any outreach until things were more solidified.  At a minimum, though, progressives should respond to the invitation to dialoge that Michael Leahy (the Republican strategist behind #tcot) offered in Stefan Deeran’s Progressives Try to Match Conservatives on Twitter here on the Exception. The #opfs hashtag, briefly described by Vann Schaffner in Free Swim, could be a good place to have these discussions.

Of course there are a zillion other possibilities.  But these seem like pretty good places to start.

dynamite ending here!

Tracy and jon

* more formally, “post an update to Twitter”.  but everybody calls it ‘tweeting’

** a related possibility: state and local blogs could potentially use Twitter as a way of networking as a counter to the dominance of DC- and New York-based blogs.