Twitter and Tone

Twitter is an interesting medium for political communication. In most social media, abbreviated, unsupported pronouncements of political principle, no matter how clever, feel lazy and superficial. On Twitter, though, succinct, provocative statements are structurally de rigueur.

I try to subscribe to the feeds of all my political representatives, regardless of political orientation. I’m disappointed that my local and state political representatives are absent on Twitter below the level of governor. That said, it’s been really interesting to observe the divergent tweeting styles of my national congressional representatives.

On a surface level, Al Franken is the only one of the three to tweet in the third person. At some level, I appreciate the acknowledgment that it is his staff running his account, not him. In terms of connecting, though, it definitely makes the feed feel impersonal. That’s really too bad; given Franken’s previous career, where every word mattered, it seems like Twitter would be a natural medium for the senator.

If Franken’s feed feels formal and stiff, Amy Klobuchar goes completely in the other direction, often speaking 2 her constituents in abbreviated Twitterese. I’d like to be able to say that I find this approach light and appealing, but I admit I find it distracting. I find myself focusing on her choice of using 4 instead of for rather than on her point. I guess that makes me a little curmudgeonly, though of the people I follow on Twitter, she’s the only one who consistently tweets in this style.

Stylistically, I find Keith Ellison’s style most appealing. He’s good at condensing thoughts without overly abbreviating. Ellison’s and Klobuchar’s tweets on Minnesota’s Marriage Equality Bill this week show the contrast in styles.

BREAKING: MN Senate passes bill allowing same-sex marriage in MN! We will b 12th state 2pass this in US. Now 2 @GovMarkDayton 2sign into law


Marriage takes love—that’s it. Great day for our state and our nation. #Equality will always have a home in Minnesota.

The top tweet is Klobuchar’s, the bottom Ellison’s. Very different styles.

But substance is more important than style, even on Twitter, right? Franken’s stream, by its nature, feels like a chronicle of events that Senator Franken is part of. The focus is most often on where he is and what he is doing. For instance, here is his most recent tweet (from a few days ago; he also tweets less frequently):

Check out feedback from Twitter, Facebook and Reddit on Al’s push to clean up the flawed credit-rating system  #SEC

Notice the emphasis is on “Al’s push,” not on the flaws of the credit-rating system.

Senator Klobuchar’s approach often feels similar. She tweeted this week:

Productive disc abt women in manufacturing @JointEconCmte hearing I chaired 2day. Thx 2 @ShopFloorNAM 4 work they do 2 boost manufacturing

Again, the focus is more on the discussion (that she chaired) and less on women in manufacturing.

Obviously, both tweets also convey support for specific causes, which tells us about the beliefs of the senators. But in 140 characters you can’t convey very much information, so the emphasis on their role means less information about the subject itself.

To be sure, Representative Ellison also sometimes tweets about what he is doing (“Voted against a bill today that would make it nearly impossible to put in place rules for Wall Street banksters. “), but much more often his tweets are focused on the issue rather than on himself. A couple of tweets from this week:

Adjusting for inflation, fast-food wages have fallen 36 cents an hour since 2010, even as the industry has raked in record profits

Milwaukee now 5th city where fast food workers strike for fair wages. They are fighting for entire middle class.

I find that the emphasis on presenting facts and principles greatly increases the amount of information he delivers in 140 characters about the topics that are important to him, without having to resort to distracting abbreviations.

There’s certainly room here for a larger discussion about the nature of Twitter. If the point of the medium is for tweets to capture a flashbulb in time (What are you doing right now? Reminiscent of Csikszentmihalyi’s experience sampling method to measuring flow.), then a more self-focused approach is totally appropriate. From this perspective, Twitter just isn’t the right medium for issue analysis.

That said, by focusing his tweets on issues rather than himself, Ellison manages to convey, at least to my ear, a sense that he is focused less on his legacy and getting credit and more on effecting positive change in the world.

It would be foolish to base one’s perceptions of an individual solely on their Twitter feed, but as a medium with severe character restrictions and an emphasis on spontaneity over reflection, Twitter certainly has the potential to give us a fresh perspective on those we follow.


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