One of my nagging worries about political communication online, and through social media, is the inequality of it.
We are still stuck with the idea that social media gives everyone a voice and, to an extent, that is true. But when everyone has a voice, how do you separate the signal from that cacophony of noise? This is a problem we have to confront every day in our online communication. And that is even before we come to the issue of advertising and algorithmic filtering – topics for further posts sometime.
But back to equality. Or communication among equals. At Augenhöhe (eye level) as the Germans would call it.
I try where I can to communicate with everyone online as an equal, at least at the start of my communication with them. If you are person making your first steps on Twitter and have 20 followers, or if you’re a star with 200000 accumulated over a decade, I am going to set out to treat you the same way. Ask me a sensible question, or engage thoughtfully with my points, and I will engage back. This even includes anonymous accounts.
Of course there are limits to this – I do not have the capacity to engage with everyone on everything. I follow close to 9000 accounts on Twitter, and through judicious use of Twitter lists I pay more attention to some people than others – simply because my home feed goes too fast.
But over the years this approach – here on my blog, and on Twitter – has delivered spectacularly well. I’ve built work connections and friendships on the basis of this attitude, and have grown a solid audience for what I write.
So why can’t politicians do the same? Or why do they not want to do the same? And why is this seemingly even harder in Germany than elsewhere?
I wrote this after an event last night:
German political communication is just weird sometimes.
At an event earlier with a bunch of MdBs from *my own party*. I tweet about them *positively*.
Follow back? Dream on
Isn’t it basic politics to amplify messages on your side? Seems not.
— Jon Worth (@jonworth) June 5, 2018
I could not quote these Grüne Bundestag Members on Twitter as it was Chatham House Rule, but some general points I did manage to tweet. No reaction whatsoever was forthcoming (and still has not been forthcoming), even though the points I expressed were relevant, friendly and positive.
It is not a time question. These politicians have tweeted since.
It is not a technophobia or opposition to social networks question. These politicians use social channels.
It is not a generational question. It afflicts politicians of all generations as far as I can tell.
And to bring all of this back to the inequality issue, it is not even that. Because – having worked at it for so long – I am quite far up the Twitter foodchain with a Verified account and 34000 followers, and a biography that lists that I teach at the College of Europe (I can look like part of the establishment when I have to). If you were doing strategic political communication within a party, I am the sort of person a consultant would tell you that you ought to talk to. If you were a person with 20 followers raising similar points you would not have a hope in hell of getting a response – which is no good either.
So what is the root of this? The best answer in the end is this one:
I also think that reaching out to strangers regardless of hierarchy or “position” is -regrettably- a rather un-German thing to do.
— Helene von Bismarck (@HeleneBismarck) June 6, 2018
This response absolutely nails it.
And – in my view – the party that does all of this differently? The AfD.
This is about attitude, not about technology. And – whether I become German or not – I am not going to change on this point. And with that in mind do tell me in the comments or on Twitter why I am wrong here!
Your experience will be of interest to all who wish to engage in a meaningful exchange of ideas on Twitter.
Perhaps, though, its word limit constrains this?
Additionally,Twitter is a bit of an echo chamber and Tweeters may find themselves ‘preaching to the converted’ who have no reason to agree/disagree.
Hmm, the thing is that without the word constraint the whole thing would never work – because then we would simply be overloaded… so I am actually a fan of that!
Great post, as always.
To the early point, about signal/ noise, and paraphrasing Herbert Simon’s point (from the early 1970’s I think ) with a surfeit of information, we suffer from a paucity of attention.
Which used to be overcome in the old days by going to trusted sources/ aggregators/’brand. Someone or some institution (a newspaper of record, in the old days) who has established over time credibility, some adherence to standards of writing/ sourcing/ argument [journalistic ethics].
This then is a hierachy or set of nodes created to save time, ensure some ‘quality’ and increase signal, lower noise.
You Jon in SM terms ar such a node, a brand , a ‘newspaper of record’ and I thank you for it. You have achieved it by working in public over time– a record which followers can see, test and assess. In that sense it is a democratic process, even if the outcome is a set of nodes/’go-to’ folks which is limited- and may appear ‘hierachic’. (Although I don’t think a hierachy is the right metaphor because it implies levels– are you in a sense ‘lower’ than a Times journalist- I don’t think so. In fact I’d say way superior! But the on-line world is more anarchic)
FWIW I never look at followers when replying or reading a Tweet, unless it is an egregiously offensive one, when I suspect a troll. BUT if a tweet is retweeted or even recommended by one I already follow– then that overcomes any concern about ‘followers’ etc. In that sense brands recommend other brands and positive associations amplify credibility. Which of course may not be news to you or that many out there, but I reflect its effect on my own use.
Similarly, some journalists can leverage off-line readership into on-line, surfing in a sense on the historic brand/reputation of their paper and the reach of the (albeit diminishing) press. DAG is an example. In this sense his followership is much more easily acquired than yours. You built your credibility. He/ others were helped by the institution that employs him.
What does this mean for engagement/ reaching out? It may mean that the more offline endorsement/ brand or indirect associations one has, the easier to be talked to- even if the existing online ‘base’ is small. A halo effect.
I also wonder about the nature of the online conversations. You Jon are very generous in sharing links, solutions, ideas, not just expressing a view. And being helpful to others is both hugely appreciated– and makes you more memorable, trusted and therefore a go-to.