While 270 electoral votes is the target number to capture on election night, 140 has been key to capturing voters’ attention throughout this campaign season — 140 characters, that is.
Despite the seemingly infinite amount of space on the Internet, posting in paragraphs has become passé. Enter microblogging site Twitter.com, a social network that has broken political news, served as a barometer of real-time reaction to the candidates, and even caused scandal for the camps throughout the 2008 election season, all within the confines of dispatches (called “tweets”) no longer than 140 characters long. Anyone from the techiest of nerds to your slightly computer-phobic mom can post tweets for everyone to see.
“People are looking for more ways to communicate with each other in public,” Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, told msnbc.com.
For Jon Deal from Salt Lake City, Utah, debate nights meant dividing his attention between two sources: his TV to watch the debate, and his Twitter homepage for the response from the public.
“There's a lot of real-time reaction,” Deal, 41, a graphic design production artist, said. “It's a blast, actually, because people say some very amusing and very insightful commentary.”
A Barack Obama supporter in a state that's leaning red, Deal said the political leanings of the people he reads – or “follows”- on Twitter are similar to his own.
James Thornburg, a twitterer in the battleground state of Ohio who said “Even members of my family are going different ways” on Election Day, often uses Twitter as a supplement to traditional news outlets.
“I’ve noticed the moment something is said during a debate, somebody can go out and point out a falsehood and back it up with tweet, after tweet, after tweet,” he said.
While Twitter declines to release the number of registered users it has, research firms report Twitter.com had more than one million unique U.S. visitors in August. Stone said the user base has grown about 600 percent over the past year.
“We’re evolving the way we communicate as a species,” he said.
The way we consume our news – particularly political news – is evolving as well. And the implications could be big for the future of politics.
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Stone points out that Twitter users aren't just voters; more than 40 members of Congress that he is aware of have profiles as well. “Having all these politicians and congressmen on Twitter means you can say to your constituents, ‘What do you think I should be doing right now?’ They can get instant feedback.”
Rep. John Culberson of Houston, for example, sends regular updates to his more than 3,600 followers through Twitter. “I will keep you posted on developments tomorrow in the House on the Paulson bailout bill,” he told them on Oct. 2, and lived up to his promise the next day in a series of tweets from the Capitol.
Democracy 'operating at the pace of real-time'
This, Stone says, means “Democracy is now operating at the pace of real-time. It's going to be important to have tools that allow you to make the right decisions, right now, rather than get left behind waiting.”
Brian Reich, author of “Media Rules: Mastering Today's Technology to Connect With and Keep Your Audience,” said tools like Twitter catch on because of their simplicity.
Social networks like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace.com and others provide a “built-in community. There's a rapid response, fact-check mechanism,” he said.
Reich says the site attracts the “political and technological elite” — bloggers or other Internet personalities who already had followings online were among the first to flock to Twitter when the site started in March 2006 — so the reach of a relative few is large.
Among those are political blog founder and Time Magazine campaign embed Ana Marie Cox, web strategist and Republican grassroots activist David All, CNN anchor Rick Sanchez, and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Both presidential candidates are on Twitter. At press time, twitter.com/barackobama had more than 112,000 followers; twitter.com/johnmccain had more than 4,600. (This discrepancy in their online fan bases is apparent across other social networks as well.)
The tweets from the "candidates" are typically press-release types of announcements and frequently, political spoofs on Twitter have attracted more attention than the candidates’ official profiles do.
'A great satire'
Shortly after Sen. John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his vice presidential pick, a new account popped up: FakeSarahPalin, one of many parodies of public personae on Twitter. With thousands more followers than the official McCain account, FakeSarahPalin tweets musings such as “Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only smart person left on earth.” After establishing itself as a caricature of the VP candidate, the anonymous FakeSarahPalin writer (or writers) asked its 7,600-plus followers in a tweet to donate to the Obama campaign, but clarified it wasn't associated with either candidate. Normal head-in-the-clouds, satirical tweets returned after that, with questions like "Why are we so worried about Borders in Mexico? USE EL AMAZON-O DOT-COM-O. jeesh.”
Deal, the Salt Lake City twitterer, admitted he wasn’t sure which he had been looking forward to more on the night of the Palin-Joe Biden face-off: watching the debate, or reading the fake Palin Twitter account as the debate happened.
“It's a great satire for what's being mirrored in reality," he said. Humor is a critical element of Twitter for Deal: “I sort of imagine it as the Internet equivalent of the comedy writer room. How can I make people laugh?”
But it’s not all humor. Twitter has cost one aide his job: When a blogger who worked on the McCain campaign tweeted about a YouTube video linking Obama to Rev. Jeremiah Wright last March, the campaign suspended him.
Heated tweets for a vocal McCain supporter
Beth Varela, a Keaau, Hawaii resident joined Twitter about three months ago in the hopes that it would help leverage her online business. Instead, the 47-year-old jewelry seller who is voting for McCain found herself more interested in the political discourse on the site.
“I'm not a fan of Obama at all,” Varela said. And she's not afraid to tweet it, either: Even after receiving hate e-mails from twitterers she has infuriated, she said, “I can't keep my mouth shut!”
Reich, the new media expert, believes reporters are over-eager to rely on Twitter as a source for stories. “It's not reflective of the broad population. If you asked Joe the Plumber if he twittered, I don't think he even knows what Twitter is.”
When asked what is wrong with Twitter, co-founder Stone mentioned the site's search feature. “We really don't do a good job exposing the relevance of this tool to people in their lives. If people look at search.twitter.com, which isn't really integrated into the main Twitter experience, they get more relevant stuff to look at. It's really hard to demonstrate that the next time a big shared event like an earthquake or a flood or your favorite TV show happens, you're going to want to connect with people in real time. I think we have a lot more work to do to get the user experience right.”
Neither the Obama nor the McCain press offices responded to msnbc.com's requests for comment this story (not even in 140 characters or less).
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