Political Tweets

Twitter, a social networking service founded in 2006 by Jack Dorsey, has quickly ballooned into a micro-blogging phenomenon in just a few short years. The 2008 presidential election sparked a movement among American politicians to voice their personal and political opinions using Twitter. The growing popularity of Twitter among politicians seems to be a result of the fight for the youth vote during the 2008 campaign season. Creating Twitter accounts was an easy way to reach a massive and largely youthful audience. Politicians began using Twitter not only to spread their own political ideologies, but also to reach out to younger voters by creating personable and technologically savvy self-images. Charles “Chuck” Grassley, a Republican Senator from Iowa, is one such politician who is using Twitter to reach a broader and more youthful demographic of American voters. By analyzing the purpose and social implications of Twitter as a networking tool, I intend to show how politicians like Senator Chuck Grassley are appropriating Twitter for their political benefit and are doing so without focusing solely on political issues in their tweets.

Twitter is a free social networking site that allows users to upload and read messages, or “tweets,” of up to 140 characters. A user may submit tweets via the web, text message, or instant message. The Twitter homepage is comprised of a live feed of tweets written by users that an individual user has chosen to follow. Conversely, a user’s own tweets are published on the homepages of their subscribers. Non-users have access to public tweets, but users are given the option of restricting access by adjusting privacy settings. Unlike other social networking sites, for example MySpace and Facebook, Twitter offers very limited profile space. Users are allowed one profile picture and can present only the most basic information: name, location, and a mini-biography of up to 140 characters. This profile is displayed on a side bar next to the live feed. Statistical data is displayed below the profile and includes how many people a user is following, how many members are following them, and the number of tweets they have posted since the account was created. Aside from tweets, other users are given little information about individual members. The deliberately limited amount of space for users to describe themselves emphasizes the site’s innovative take on social networking. Twitter explains the inspiration and mission of the site simply and succinctly: “Jack Dorsey had grown interested in the simple idea of being able to know what his friends were doing” (http://twitter.com/about#about). Twitter users are painting a picture of their personality based not solely on thoughts or opinions, but also on where they are and what activity they are performing at any given moment of the day.

Twitter allows followers to learn the idiosyncrasies of particular users, but also compiles and presents its own statistical data in a way that keeps followers in tune with the millions of users worldwide. For example, there is a search engine tool on the side bar which allows users to search for tweets using keywords. If  users search for the term “dog” in the search bar they will be shown a live stream of tweets which include that word. Below the search bar is a heading called “Trending Topics.” This displays the current top ten most popular words or phrases tweeted by users. Clicking on the links to any of the trending topics will take you to a live feed of tweets containing that word or phrase.

Given massive popularity of Twitter and its ability to display the most popular topics among the millions of users who post daily, it is unsurprising that politicians have jumped on the bandwagon and created their own Twitter accounts. Politicians are using Twitter as a tool for spreading political views to a larger audience and also for creating  personable, down-to-earth images of themselves, which they hope will reverberate with the American people.

Chuck Grassley’s (www.twitter.com/chuckGrassley) account is a good example of how politicians are attempting to balance politics with personality by alternately tweeting about topics of political and personal interest. It is important to note that Chuck Grassley’s Twitter stands apart from the pack. While most politicians have aides or interns posting on their behalf, it is evident that Senator Grassley is composing his own tweets. For example, the time and means by which the tweet was sent are displayed below each post. When comparing Senator Grassley’s tweets to Senator John McCain’s (www.twitter.com/SenJohnMcCain) for instance, one notices that all of McCain’s tweets are sent via the web while nearly all of Grassley’s tweets are sent via text (txt). Senator Grassley’s over-use of abbreviations and lack of punctuation, commonly referred to as SMS language, also suggests that his posts were self-composed. On August 27, 2009 at 1:17pm he tweeted: “thnks to Sibley Kiwanis for hostng mtg. Abt 100 came out to tlk about issues. Hope othrs are hldg twn hall mtgs. Is democracy in action.” While the simplified form of the tweet borders on extreme, Senator Grassley is clearly trying to emphasize the fact that it is authentic. He is presenting himself as a simple-speaking member of the American mainstream rather than an elitist, over-educated politician. To uphold this self-image it is beneficial for him to mix political and light-hearted tweets. For example, on September 5, 2009 at 5:02pm he tweeted: “Saw Ia U beat my school 17/16. UNI played best I proud of my team Pres Mason came up 22pts short of her prediction 4 victory. She good Prez.” In this instance, Senator Grassley fashions himself as a football loving, all-American, but is also asserting his political support for Iowa University.

Despite the unpretentious appearance of Senator Grassley’s Twitter account, it is apparent that he is trying to create a certain persona for himself. He creates a show of authenticity by sending his tweets from a mobile device and composing his tweets using SMS language, but also by presenting his personal and recreational habits alongside his political activities and opinions. Regardless of the individual politician’s motivations, Twitter is offering the American public a more intimate relationship with lawmakers than has ever been possible. Moreover, political Twitter accounts raise questions about the importance of these records for future use by historians. An off-the-cuff remark on Twitter may someday be as relevant as a political speech when thinking back on the career of a certain politician. With such reasonable future uses, it is imperative that archivists take notice and incorporate notable Twitter accounts into digital archives.

About Julianna Monjeau

Graduate Assistant, Tamiment Library Web Archiving Project, NYU

Graduate Assistant, Bobst Interlibrary Loan Department, NYU

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5 Responses to Political Tweets

  1. Thanks for being our first blogger, Julianna! I will say that I know that some archivists are kind of tearing their hair out over archiving Twitter — I met someone at the recent MARAC who works for NARA who said that this kind of thing keeps him up at night. The Library of Congress did archive some tweets related to the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, as I understand, but I don’t know of anyone who’s doing individual twitter feeds.

    I do know that right now if you want to archive a Twitter feed, you have to set it up beforehand — one way it can be done is by subscribing to the feed with an RSS reader such as Google Reader and then outputting the feed as plain text.

  2. Jennifer Waxman says:

    As I recall, the LOC used the web crawler Heretix to archive the Sotomayor tweets. They explain the entire process on their digital projects page. Two other methods of archiving tweets involve other open source applications. One is called TheArchivist. You can export into Excel and keep your searches ongoing as long as you open the search to gather every day. It will get tweets up to two weeks back or up to 1500, which ever comes first. Obvious problems are if you loose your connection or your computer crashes, you could obviously not have a “complete” record of the tweets you are following. I tested it out during the Iran election riots to see how it works. It works, but the results should be further analyzed to determine how well it holds up as a born-digital record.

    The other option is the Twapperkeeper, but I have less experience with that and do not believe it’s as easily exported. Many folks dealing with digital preservation and web archiving are researching ways to archive web 2.0 content. It’s a very new field and for obvious reasons, will be very important down the road.

  3. I’ve used Twapperkeeper before; it’ll output RSS and tab-delimited text, but one major limitation is that it only archives things that are marked with #hashtags (Twitter’s organic form of metadata).

  4. Yes, I’m the NARA archivist that can’t sleep because of Twitter and frankly, almost all “web 2.0′ sites. And the standard disclaimer applies – what follows is my thinking and not NARA policy.

    To answer Julianna’s point, I’ll say that she’s right about the need to archive Twitter and the potential interest in Twitter down the road. From a broader, government-wide perspective, the same thinking applies as well. For instance, most public statements (press releases, annual reports) from Federal agencies are generally appraised as permanent records. It’s then an easy leap to translate that to the Twitter feed created by an agency – such as NASA or the CDC. It’s a little awkward when the agencies don’t own the servers that they are posting to, but as everyone has mentioned, tools exist that allow the capture of tweets. Personally, I’ve used Tweetake to get a CSV backup and it worked pretty well.

    Twitter is actually pretty straightforward on both the appraisal and the technology side. Where it gets more difficult is where the content is not as easy to appraise, let alone capture – think Facebook. That’s where archivists can argue about appraisal theory and still not agree. Some agencies use FB as a place to aggregate their press releases and such. You can make the argument that if that’s the case, then as long as the original press releases are captured in other places, then the content on FB is not a record. But what do you do with comments that exist solely on FB at that point?

    I’m glad that students like Julianna are thinking about archival preservation on web 2.0 platforms. That bodes well for the profession moving forward. I also feel that traditional archival appraisal theory has to evolve as well. We’re seeing the first steps of that evolution. Keep up the good work. Now, I’ll go back to worrying about how to capture content from Second Life.

  5. Kathleen Hulser says:

    Should we pity the researcher of the future browsing these political tweets, or feel relieved that at least some written communications will still be written and saved unlike the vast majority of email info? Abundance and relevance, the promise and the pitfall of the future.

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