US politics all a-twitter

I’ve been watching more of the Democratic National Convention this year than usual. Partly of course that’s because of the thrilling primary battle, and the historic nature of the outcome (first black candidate narrowly beats out what would have been the first woman candidate.) There’s a real sense of momentous things happening and the world changing before our very eyes. So is the sense of involvement I have just because of this particular situation, because of the Obama/Clinton soap opera? Or is it because the media coverage has changed?

I’m certainly not referring to changes in the traditional media coverage. That’s been much the same as ever. Last night while working away online, I had BBC News 24 doing a solid job of reporting from the convention floor, and then when I went to bed it was to the sounds of BBC Radio 5 Live’s “up all night” coverage which was particularly good. As I nodded off, The West Wing‘s Richard Schiff was being interviewed about “his” man (he’s a big Biden supporter) – the perfect marriage of reality and fiction.

No, what’s really been different – what’s really changed the experience for me – is the online social media channels. People have been writing blog entries, they’ve been taking videos, they’ve been taking pictures and posting them on Flickr, and it’s made the experience much more rounded and complete for someone like me, thousands of miles away. After having seen Dave Winer’s pictures of the press and bloggers areas and of the backstage in Denver – of tonight’s stadium venue for the big Obama keynote speech – I get a much better sense of what it’s like to be there. When he makes the quick observation that “they told people not to bring water so people are dehydrating”, I feel more involved.

Now I’m sure this was happening 4 years ago, although the fever pitch excitement was definitely tempered when the Democrats realised they had lumbered themselves with a sure-fire no-win inanimate object in the form of John Kerry. Most of the same social media tools were present, if perhaps not quite to the same extent. So what’s changed in 2008? Is it the candidate and sense of optimism? That’s part of it. But I think there’s a more surprising element at work:

Twitter.

What the hell has Twitter got to do with this, you may ask? You may also be wondering what the hell Twitter is, in which case I’ll simply say it’s a rolling feed of SMS-type messages placed onto a basic website page devoid of much in the way of functionality or navigation. I didn’t expect to like Twitter when I started using it: it seemed to have no purpose to it. And yet it has proved strangely addictive nonetheless, and I find that I can’t stop playing with it.

But this week I’ve realised that it’s transformed how I’m taking in the DNC, too. I’m following so many people on Twitter who are directly connected with the event. We have the aforementioned Dave Winer for example; professional US journalists like Jay Rosen; there’s vardley, a fellow member of The WELL who is there as a delegate from Oregon. There are the official news feeds from the big boys like CNN and BBC, and there’s a regular Twitter feed from the online magazine Slate. Then there are all the committed Democrat supporters all chiming in from all over the country, asking questions and expressing opinions, whooping when Bill Clinton raised the roof with his speech and fearing for the worst when none other than John Kerry himself was next on stage attempting to “follow that.”

There has just been an interesting suggestion of how Twitter achieves “ambient intimacy” with its setup: that the format and its ephemeral nature lends itself to the sort of utterances that you’d never put into a formal piece of prose. What you’re eating, what you’re doing, where you’re going. And in particular the immediacy of it. It’s the same thing as having a friend sitting next to you on the couch, and you’re trading one line quips back and forth as you watch the TV. It’s fun, it’s friendly, it’s real.

So instead of a long distance bystander in US politics, I’m suddenly feeling as though I’m almost there, almost in the middle of it, standing in a group of people chatting and trading spontaneous thoughts. And moreover, Twitter is acting as the connective tissue so that I get pointers to their photos, their blogs, their discussions too that have been scattered across the web, and I’m getting those pointers in near-real time, not hours, days or weeks after the event. Twitter has been the backbone that’s brought all the other social media channels together for me at exactly the right time and in the right way.

We all know that the big problem with the internet has always been finding things. All that social media coverage was there in 2004, but who knew where? Google is of course the most prominent answer to the question of “where do I find it?”, but it’s still depressing to read “your query returned 8 billion results”. Twitter shouldn’t come close to Google’s search effectiveness, and yet it manages to put things in front of me right here and now that I want, thanks to the events and the discussions that are going on. Quality not quantity and all that.

This outcome has really surprised me, but then so many aspects about the low-tech Twitter system surprise me. It’s why you’ll see a lot of articles about Twitter on my del.icio.us feed, as I research the issue. I’ll surely return to Twitter quite a lot over the coming weeks and months.

But in the meantime: what does the online coverage of the US natonal conventions teach us about UK politics? Is there a way that political parties can harness Twitter and the other tools to produce a similarly immersive experience this side of the poind? I know there are cultural, political, social and technological differences between Britain and America; but surely anything that can rejuvenate the dead husks of the annual party conferences should be looked into, before politics and politicians become even more estranged from their constituencies?

And now, time to head off and track the coverage of the Obama speech. Twitter’s already alive with the preparations and pictures are going up to Flickr as we speak.

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