Originally published on The Exception
Co-written with Tracy Viselli. Previous draft here.
The two of us met working on Twitter Vote Report last October and have continued to experiment with and write about Twitter-based activism. Thanks to The Exception for the opportunity to build on Stefan Deeran’s Progressives Try to Match Conservatives on Twitter and take a strategic view of the possibilities.
- adopt and improve on Twitter best practices: insiders providing information regularly, backchannels at conferences and workshops, regular Twitter-based chats by organizations and bloggers, a wiki with contact lists and learning materials, developing skills pitching to journalists who prefer Twitter, using Twitter to help with Digg (1, 2, 3), etc.
- refine techniques for Twitter-based “flash actions” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Social computing technologies are tools; we need to learn to use them effectively.
- use Twitter to engage with communities currently marginalized by the “progressive blogosphere”. We propose a new #p2 (“progressives 2.0”) hashtag to help enable this.
Details below the fold.
New media experts, journalists, conservatives, moms, feminists, and increasing numbers of politicians have all been using Twitter very effectively. So in the two weeks since @problemchylde’s call for progressives to use the #rebelleft hashtag followed by @drdigipol’s proposal for a new #topprog “top progressives on Twitter” hashtag, there’s been a flurry of activity.
As well as a lot of humor* and dismissiveness. Why waste time playing catchup with the conservatives on Twitter, of all places? Many people write off Twitter before really understanding it, which is a shame because it’s got some real advantages as a tool for organizers and activists.
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, forwarding interesting links, crowdsourcing information like Twitter Vote Report, staying in touch with friends, and so on.
It can all be a bit bewildering at first, so articles like David Pogue’s Twitter? It’s what you make it and Dave Fleet’s Practical 101s: Getting Started With Twitter are good starting points. If you’d like to check it out for a while before you sign up, you can follow the discussions via Twitter search or well-connected Twitter profiles like @maegancarberry, @WomenWhoTech, @baratunde, @punditmom, @populista, @pamspaulding, @ricksanchezcnn, @digitalsista, @arimelber, @MediaLizzy, @rootwork, @nancyscola, @myrnatheminx, @jdp23.
Twitter’s evolving very rapidly, and the environment today is quite different a year ago. As well as the increasing use of clients like TweetDeck and twhirl, one of the biggest difference is the increasing use of hashtags — keywords with a # prefix like #rebelleft, #tcot, #p2. As Rebecca writes in An Introduction to Twitter Hashtags on Wild Apricot:
Tagging helps to organize and share our online information with others…. The aim is to bring some order to Twitter users’ published updates (“tweets”) and make it easier to follow a topic of interest. And you don’t necessarily have to be a Twitter user to get a benefit from hashtags.
The Monday evening #journchat, for journalists and others, is an excellent example of a straightforward application of hashtags: a Twitter-based chat room. Because you can tweet** from a phone, this is also a good technieque for providing updates and a “backchannel” at 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.
Why don’t progressives do this kind of stuff regularly?
This brings us to our first recommendation, grounded like the others in our experiences and observations of Twitter usage and activism over the last six months: progressives should adopt and improve on Twitter best practices. Step 1 is to do the basics: insiders providing information at meetings, backchannels at conferences and workshops, regular Twitter-based chats by organizations and bloggers, mentoring programs and social network sites like #tcot’s, and so on. There’s also plenty of room for breaking new ground, for examples wikis with information like contact lists, training in how to pitch stories to journalists who prefer Twitter, documentation of the behind-the-scenes work needed as part of a major digg campaign. Looking further ahead, Twitter can be a core part of campaigns that involve other social networks such as Facebook, MySpace, and digg.
As well as improving communications, better Twitter usage will make the progressive movement much more inclusive. A backchannel at a conference, for example, allowsletting people who can’t take the time off work and pay the fees to participate in an all-day to conference participate. A wiki with getting started tutorials, screencasts on subjects in media interaction, contact lists for media and links to key Twitter users will help democratize access to gatekeepers and “influentials”.
There are encouraging steps in this direction already. A #topprog feed is avialable via www.IAmProgress.org, with the plan to using it as a bulletin board for the progressive community and its discussions. @cacardinal has set up topprog.org (which could evolve either a portal like www.topconservativesontwitter.org) and @rootwork is collecting Twitter “field reports”. The challenge will be to build on this initial momentum — and get the “insiders” to take participate.
Tracy’s recent experiment with #taxcuts and Jon’s with #digg it illustrate another strategic possibility: activists need to refine techniques for Twitter-based “flash actions”. Mary K. Ham’s Just Go to Don’t Go in The Examiner and Allyson Kapin’s Motrin’s Pain: Viral Video Disaster on Fast Company’s Radical Tech describes two early success on this front. Twitter’s hip, sexy and hot hot hot, so it’s easy to create buzz — and the traditional media loooves to write about it. Last November’s #motrinmoms campaign made it from Twitter through the blogosphere and into to the New York Times in less than 48 hours.
The challenge is turning this buzz into action. As Tracy writes in #taxcuts: Creating Twitter Hashtags That Inspire Action
Because #taxcuts promoted creativity (check out the first message asking for adoption), adopters felt free to run with it. And run with it they did! There are 35 plus pages of hilarious #taxcuts tweets from only a few hours.
But where #taxcuts stalled was in turning adoption into action.
There’s clearly a huge amount of potential here. To realize it, progressives will need to learn from and refine techniques that have been shown to work — and develop new ones. #dontgo leveraged the involvement of politicians. #votereport highlights the power of crowdsourcing, visualization, and custom development, as well as the value of integrating SMS and phone keypad access. #motrinmoms show the synergies between Twitter and the blogosphere. And looking forward, crisp calls to action are also important: how best to integrate Twitter with “phone your legislator” campaigns and petitions?
It’s not at all obvious what techniques will work best in what situations, and so experimentation is vital. The initial results from “#digg it” are an example of the kind of quantitative and qualitative data to capture. Collecting these results on a wiki, and providing good learning materials for people who want to do their own experiments, are good next steps.
An opportunity to engage
Dozens of posts document the power imbalances in the “progressive blogosphere”.*** Women, persons of color, youth, social network activists, and many other groups are significantly under-represented and under-recognized. There are geographical diversity problems as well, with DC- and New York-based national blogs dominating access to mainstream media at the expense of state and local blogs, and international viewpoints rarely covered.
Twitter is an opportunity to engage with communities currently marginalized by the “progressive blogosphere”. Demographically and stylisticly, Twitter is far less male-dominated than the big blogs of the progressive blogosphere — and as the recent @aprildunford/@sirdavid interchange shows, some classic dominance techniques are much more easily defused in this environment. At a technical level, the ability to sent a single tweet to multiple hashtags makes it easy for conversations to intersect. And Twitter clients are starting to include rudimentary translation facilities which over time are likely to make it easier to work across language boundaries.
It’s not that Twitter is a utopia by any means. However, the power structure is still in flux. So a collaborative effort between progressives, youth, feminists, women of color, LGBTQ activists — across the US and internationally — has a chance to make a big difference.
One simple way to start is to set up a new shared hashtag for the different groups to collaborate. In Seth Godin’s terminology, the users of each hashtag can be viewed as a tribe; we need a place for the tribes to get together to discuss how to work together effectively.
We propose #p2 (for “Progressives 2.0”) as a shared hashtag. The name is a hat-tip to the #fem2 hashtag as well as Web 2.0 social computing technologies. Initial feedback has been consistently positive. Best of all, it’s short — 40% fewer characters than #tcot.
To be clear: the #p2 hashtag is intended to complement, not replace, others. #rebelleft is a great example of a hashtag-as-tribe; it’s got an attitude, a vibrant feel, leaders, and members. #topprog is still gelling, but it’s easy to imagine this developing into “progressives’ even-better version of #tcot”, with a lot of focus on learning from — and competing with — conservatives. And each of #fem2, #woc, #jti, and so on have their own identity. That’s a good thing.
We expect most posts to #p2 will also go to one or two other hashtags, so conversations in #p2 will diffuse out more broadly. This is particularly valuable in intersectional issues. Consider Jon’s tweet asking people to consider digging Amos Lim’s Pam’s House Blend story on Re-Introducing of the Uniting American Families Act, which is relevant to progressives, feminists, women of color, lgbtq and migrant rights activists.
Ideally, this information should have gone to #rebelleft, #topprog, #jti, #fem2, #woc, #lgbt, #lgbtq, and #Out4Immigration — and no doubt elsewhere. But that far exceeds Twitter’s 140 character maximum. A shared #p2 tag allows people from each of these other hashtags to following it and decide what information they should retweet elsewhere.
#p2 is also a place to discuss a shared Twitter vocabulary and conventions. How and when to use hashtags like #digg and #action? How best to set up local and international versions of hashtags — should it be #fem2_uk or #uk_fem2? How do they interact with the “global” one? Which posts should be tagged with a geographical location? And so on …
The next steps on #p2 are pretty obvious: discuss on Twitter and follow up with a Tweetchat. Details TBD. Watch for it on Twitter.
There are other intriguing possibilities for Twitter. Most intriguingly, if and when the current partisan rancor starts to die down, Twitter could also be a good place to engage with forward-looking conservatives and libertarians. Reviewing an earlier version of this article, Maegan Carberry discussed how the kinds of interactions you get on Twitter could contribute to this:
It’s a collective conversation that has completely changed the way I think. Not to mention I have bonded with people I might have discredited; we often exchange jokes and non-political banter as well, which humanizes things and creates civility.
With many conservatives openly saying they’re working to make President Obama fail, and a lot of trolling going on between #tcot, #topprog, and #rebelleft, there’s a lot of skepticism on all sides of the Twitterverse as to whether this is possible. On the other hand, Twitter-based activists share some common goals: working with TweetCongress to getting politicians on Twitter, coming up with techniques to keep hashtags (relatively) hash free. Perhaps over time conservatives will get over their obstructionism, and progressives will respond to the invitations to dialogue from Michael Leahy (the Republican strategist behind #tcot) and Vann Schaffner. We shall see.
In the short term, though, there’s a lot to be done. Each of the three recommendations has some straightforward next steps; and no doubt there are many ways for this proposal to be improved, so it would be great to kick off a discussion.
What are we waiting for?
Thanks to Linnie, Alan, Maegan, Sarah, Ivan, Jen and the other reviewers of earlier versions
Twitter graphic from joomlatools on flickr, licensed under Creative Commons
* okay, it is pretty funny that #topprog uses 60% more characters than #tcot.
** more formally, “post an update to Twitter”. but everybody calls it ‘tweeting’
*** Susan C. Herring et. al.’s Women and children last: the discursive construction of Weblogs, Shelley Powers’ Guys don’t link, Jose Antonio Vargas’ A Diversity of Opinion, if not of Opinionators, Kirsten Powers’ Net-roots Ninnies, Amy Alexander’s The Color Line Online, A.J. Rossmiller’s Myth of the meritocracy, Kay Steiger’s The “new” new left is white, male, and Jon’s Intermission and discussions on Open Left and Petitions are soooooo 20th century are good places to start.
Tracy Viselli is an online media strategist, blogger, political activist, and entrepreneur. As Myrna the Minx, Viselli has been raising hell for years at her political placeblog Reno and Its Discontents, but her online media exploits extend far beyond Reno, Nevada. Viselli is a contributor to The Political Voices Of Women and blogs about women’s rights at Care2.org.
Jon Pincus is a strategist, writer, and activist living in the Seattle area, currently working on Tales from the Net (a book on social networks co-authored with Deborah Pierce and his brother Greg). As well as being an organizer for Get FISA Right, he’s vice-chair for online visibility for the 2009 ACM Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference. He blogs about these and other topics at Liminal States and elsewhere.