Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Technology in the House

Republicans currently make up about 40 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives.  But you wouldn't know that from their Twitter presence, reports Colleen Shogan in the April issue of PS:
As the minority party, Republicans currently use Twitter more frequently (Vogel 2009). Not only did more House Republicans use Twitter than their Democratic counterparts, they also tweeted more frequently. House Republicans, who constitute 54% of members registered with Twitter, sent approximately 74% of all tweets during session and approximately 64% of tweets during recess.
So I guess the next question is, does that matter?  Republicans may have out-tweeted Democrats over the past year, but the final health reform vote looked almost exactly as it was expected to look a year earlier.

Well, I can relate a story from my Simgov class, which is a simulation of the U.S. Congress.  The Democrats, although in the majority, have been getting their agenda stalled on the floor by a smaller but much more organized and prepared Republican Party for several weeks now.  Today, the Democrats seemed to figure it out -- they controlled debate very effectively, rebutting Republican arguments and limiting amendments at every opportunity.  I was impressed with how organized the Democrats were.  After class, the Speaker admitted to me that while he was running the chamber, he was also coordinating Democratic floor tactics via Facebook chat.

Now, an instant message program like Facebook chat is kind of the opposite of Twitter -- the former allows you to secretly communicate with select people; the latter is designed for broadcasting.  And in the real House, Pelosi doesn't have to multi-task like that, as she has a whole office designed to let her run the chamber and coordinate party activities simultaneously.  But you can see where instant messaging software like this might come in handy.  (It can also be a boon to lobbyists.)

Using Twitter is very different -- this is how members might communicate with their constituents or with a small number of hardcore activists.  It can be good for messaging or for generating interesting quotes for reporters.  But it's less obvious to me how something like Twitter might be a game changer for legislators.  It seems to just run alongside the already existing structure for communicating messages outside the chamber.

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