While traditional media outlets excel in wordiness during election season, one social media outlet proudly flaunts its brevity. Twitter is a free "microblogging" service that lets anyone share online what they are doing or thinking, in 140 characters or less (including spaces). Many Twitter users are now "tweeting"--sending out--their political views to their "followers", or readers. A new website called Politweets gleans the "tweets" which mention political candidates' names and then displays them on its site in real time. What Politweets captures hints at public opinion and trends regarding the election. It has also become a news outlet, where private citizens, traditional media, and even the candidates' themselves tweet about facts, opinion and web links to anyone who reads.
This is Web 2.140 in action, where microblogging and politics combine to propel political conversations forwards. It's the town square gone digital, and there's room for everyone.
Politweets was created by Character140 (website coming soon), a collective of web developers and digital designers based in the Washington, D.C.-metro area. I interviewed Jason Garber and Doug March, two collective members, about the road to Politweets, which was actually inspired by their first tweet-capturing site, twittertale. Vastly different from Politweets, twittertale tracked swear words and profanity mentioned in tweets on the public Twitter timeline. Initially created just to entertain their friends, it developed a larger following.
"Then we realized we could probably use this for something a little more useful," Jason explained. Dan Croak, another collective member, suggested, "Have you guys ever considered doing something political with this?" Enthused, the group (which also includes Gabe Hanford, Min Kim, and Alisa Schadt) pulled Politweets together over the span of a weekend. Character140 members donated their skills, time and personal resources to develop Politweets and keep it running. "We all share a passion for the Web," Doug says, explaining the group's drive.
Politweets went live just before the New Hampshire primaries. ZDNet, Mashable, and ReadWriteWeb all ran short pieces on it. People flocked to Politweets to watch the New Hampshire primary results stream in via tweets: some pure opinion from spectators, some ground-level coverage from people actually in New Hampshire, and various news outlets' feeds going out over Twitter. Politweets' home page resembled a digital newspaper. Tweets featuring URLs to CNN and YouTube videos, and also to established newspapers' reporting, provided links to additional multimedia coverage.
The immediate nature of these political tweets is particularly captivating. Garber said that friend Kevin Lawver describes Twitter as the "world's largest dinner party, where you're at one end of the table, but you can kind of hear what people on the other end are talking about. You sometimes only get a sentence or two, and you're left wondering, 'What was that conversation about?'" News travels lightening fast between users online. Since Twitter can be used via mobile phone SMS, or text messaging, any private citizen at an acceptance or concession speech with news to share can text it and it will be shared to whomever is following them. In this way, even personal tweets become news items; a user's stream of tweets becomes a news feed from a trusted, friendly source. (Note: I found out about Politweets through someone I follow on Twitter: Jeremiah Owyang, a Senior Analyst at Forrester Research, sent out a tweet about it to his almost 3,000 tech-interested followers.)
Conversations seen on Politweets hint at deeper trends in media consumption and the political process. Social media tools like Twitter allow people turn to their Twitter friends for immediate feedback. "For quick opinion polls, it's really, really good," Garber says; he's asked friends via Twitter which computer monitor he should buy, and "within minutes had about fifteen responses." Could Twitter users do this regarding presidential candidates? March explains, "There are more options out there...mainstream media will always have a place, but there are a lot of small markets now to get information from." As we inch closer to November, these self-selected Twitter communities could further solidify into what March describes as reflecting a "small-town mentality." Are these groups significant, and if so, how do politicians reach them? For the Iowa Caucus, candidates go door to door to meet eligible voters. How do candidates knock on the digital doors of Twitterville for similar outreach?
Pollsters looking for hard data from Politweets won't find it, as Twitter asks for very minimal information about its users. Character140 has no interest in learning or sharing the personal details about who is tweeting. Their site simply collects and presents tweets already available publicly online; this provides snapshots of conversations and observations about U.S. elections being made worldwide. Politweets does track which candidate is most "tweeted" about, however. The current top three are Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Character140 plans to add additional charts and graphs to Politweets to show trends in candidates' popularity on Twitter in time for SuperTuesday.
While people may avoid political discussions at work and with family and friends, many Twitter users are surprisingly candid about their leanings. Viewing the message stream on Politweets clarifies that the line between public and private is blurrier than ever. Some ideas sent out in a mass tweet might be better shared just among close friends at the local coffee house, rather than out on the Web for all the see. "People think they are still conversing that way, I think that's the problem," March explains. "Some may have a limited technology background, some may not read the terms of service on the site about how the data is used. Everything has happened so quickly. Regarding how private is private, we're roughly twelve years into this Internet period, and we're just now figuring it all out."
Tune in to Politweets during televised presidential debates or after primary results are announced to see Twitter at its free-expression best. You'll find everything from benign personal opinion to extreme conspiracy theory to on-scene insight. Tweets from traditional news outlets will be there, too. Watching Politweets' constant flow of short ideas and information is oddly invigorating. Although in an almost soundbite-like format, the political conversation here is alive. "If we can reach people and convince them that the political process is exciting, interesting and that they should be involved, then we've more than done anything we set out to do," Garber says.
If technology and bright ideas continue to combine to create more tools like Politweets, the Web Developer could become a major player in the 2008 elections and beyond. Time will tell if this will inspire and re-energize disgruntled potential voters, particularly the untapped-youth vote. We will see if political candidates on Twitter actually use it to join conversations with the general public, instead of just to announce their next campaign stop. One thing is certain: if this remaining election season holds any authentic, revealing moments for the presidential candidates, and someone uses Twitter to share it, you may read about it first on Politweets.