One of the biggest successes in e-government this past year, and arguably one of the most surprising, is Downing Street’s use of Twitter. And thanks to a remarkable couple of weeks, the Prime Minister’s Office now finds itself in the Top 100 of the most followed Twitter accounts worldwide, as ranked (fairly reliably) by Twitterholic.com.
It’s been a model of social media usage. The account was first publicised (here, by me) almost exactly ten months ago: the initial tweets were, as with a lot of corporates, automated via the Twitterfeed service. But within a week, they were beginning to talk like ‘proper’ users; nowadays, of course, it’s perfectly normal for them to reply to comments and queries from other users – who seem genuinely stunned that someone at No1o is listening. It’s often been quoted as an example of best practice – and this week, I’ve seen several people (eg the influential Mashable blog) suggesting the Obama White House should use it as its model.
Growth in the number of followers has been steady rather than spectacular – until earlier this month, when things went into overdrive. Just ten days ago, they had just over 8,000 followers; the Twitterholic number quoted for today is more than double that… putting them at #96 in the world. But as I write this, the @downingstreet Twitter page reports a follower count in excess of 19,000 – enough to put them even higher in the rankings tomorrow, leaping ahead of internet ‘big names’ like Loic Le Meur, Dave Winer and Zefrank. (And even, dare i even say it, @wordpress!) Any higher, and you’re into serious celebrity territory.
When you see a chart looking like that, you’re inevitably trying to think what could possibly be causing it. I’m not aware of any rational explanation myself… and a quick scan of recent followers doesn’t suggest an influx of spam accounts. (Well, no more than usual.)
I can only offer a couple of suggestions:
The Obama effect. There’s been a lot of speculation about what Team O might do with whitehouse.gov – and maybe that’s stimulated interest in what’s happening elsewhere. (I have to say though, the Canadian and Australian PMs haven’t seen anything like the same growth.)
In the wake of Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross and John Cleese – Brits are waking up to Twitter. Hitwise published data last week claiming Twitter’s UK-based website traffic (never mind other usage methods) was up 10-fold in a year, with – by the look of it – a further acceleration in the last few weeks. I guess the PM’s Office has made it into that category of Famous UK People You Should Follow When You Join: certainly if you look at the most recent followers, a lot of them are new Twitter users, and @downingstreet is among their first handful of follows.
It’s truly an amazing success story: and the secret is simple – it’s playing by the (evolving) rules of the medium. The No10 web team post a range of stuff: what they described earlier this week as ‘information mixed with colour‘ – same as every good Twitterer does. Sometimes it’s important government stuff; sometimes it’s the ‘what I had for breakfast’ of Twitter stereotyping. They ask for feedback; they respond to questions, where they can. There’s no lengthy clearance process; they trust the guys to be sensible, and it’s a policy that has worked. The fact that it’s all kept anonymous, and the fact that it isn’t actually the PM himself (and they make no secret of that), have not hindered things. Now, with all those people listening, what would you do with them?
From Cabinet Office questions and PMQs today… and that’s before the debate on Segways tonight. So we’re to assume that the nation’s MPs were catching up on some serious geek time over the Christmas break then?
(Background pic from uk_parliament at Flickr)
I’ve recently noticed people’s Twitter accounts ranking particularly highly on search results for their name. So is the benefit to your search engine ranking good enough reason to get into Twitter, even just as a token gesture?
For example, I run an experimental Twitter account for Puffbox: it’s just a Twitterfeed thing for blog posts specifically about the company. It only has a handful of subscribers, and I’m neither offended nor surprised. But it’s ranking remarkably highly on Google searches for ‘puffbox’: at present, it’s number #3, beneath two results for puffbox.com itself. Setting up a new Twitter account takes seconds; setting up a Twitterfeed something similar; and once it’s up and running, that’s job done.
Of course, a one-way Twitter account isn’t going to win you many plaudits, or indeed many followers. But if it pushes your content up the appropriate search rankings, for zero cost and zero day-to-day (or even month-to-month) effort, surely it’s worth doing? The choice of a sensible, search-term friendly username seems to be the most important factor; but don’t forget to add meaningful ‘personal’ information to your profile, so people know where to go next.
French left-of-centre newspaper Libération dedicated Monday’s entire front page to ‘le Twitter’, declaring it to be ‘politicians’ latest weapon’. With only 6,000 users in France, compared to two million on Facebook, it’s still a relatively new phenomenon – and the lead story gives a decent grounding for those who haven’t come across it. Obama gets a mention, but sadly our own @DowningStreet doesn’t.
In classic French thèse-antithèse-synthèse style, they balance up their excitable lead piece with a sceptical view from an academic, then pull it all together in an editorial comment. Dominique Wolton is the sceptic, comparing Twitter to pirate radio and community TV – which were heralded as a new critique of politics and lifestyles, but soon disappeared. He makes some very fair points in his piece; and it’s about time I dusted off my French degree, so here goes.
Politicians imagine these new tools will help them escape from journalistic tyranny, and create direct links with the public – hence the explosive growth of blogs and forums. The catch is, this type of activity is timeconsuming but doesn’t replace traditional media or face-to-face contact, let alone real action.
There is an illusion of transparency. Knowing what a politician is up to at all times isn’t the same as political action. Politicians need silence, and time. They can’t constantly maintain an interactive relationship. Rather than improving democracy, too much interactivity could accentuate «l’agitation politico-médiatico-démocratique» (ed: how French is that!!). Politics is complex and slow. We mustn’t give in to technological ideology.
Political communication is a complicated, three-sided game: politicians, media and public opinion. We need to beware an imbalance, which will ultimately benefit no-one.
In less than 5 years, the current infatuation with new, interactive modes of communication will calm down. Politicians will make more selective use of the internet. They will realise that their credibility doesn’t depend on their use of these technologies, but on their ability to act, and their conviction.
The reference to ‘less than five years‘ is significant, as that’ll coincide with the next set of French presidential elections. Elsewhere, we have the US voting this autumn, and the UK in 2010 (at the latest); my suspicion is that in the short term, even with no tangible results, the sheer kudos of being active in these new channels will still count for something. Or perhaps more accurately, it’ll reflect badly on any candidate or party which is seen not to be hip to it all.
I note Sky News are trying something unusual in their coverage from Beijing. All 22 members of the crew departing Osterley for the Olympics will be contributing to an ‘Olympic Twitter Microblog‘. They promise we’ll hear from ‘presenters, reporters, producers, camera operators and engineers: 22 different perspectives, 22 different pairs of eyes & ears, and 22 different experiences of Beijing 2008’ – all via SMS, by the look of it.
It’s an interesting idea, but not without its problems. Of the 22 in question, we might recognise the names of a couple – Chris Skudder, Jeremy Thompson. The rest – no offence, chaps – could be anybody; and I can’t see many people signing up to follow them. There’s a generic SkyNewsOlympics account, but at the moment, it’s little more than a directory of the other 22 accounts.
So the only way to follow the entire group effort is via the page on the Sky website… which may or may not have been a conscious decision. But an idea occurs to me: could you aggregate the 22 accounts back into Twitter from outside, using Twitterfeed, and the 22 individual (outbound) RSS feeds? A bit of a roundabout method, but I’ve done such RSS-cannibalism before, to great effect.
A few more developments over at the Foreign Office to note. Meg Munn, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State is now blogging – making a total of 3 FCO ministers, along with Messrs Miliband and Murphy.
They’ve also been bringing in a few other Embassy staff – including the High Commissioners to Nigeria and Malta, both of whom have been running ‘blogs’ (of one form or another) on their own posts’ website until now. It’s clearly an official policy to bring these on to one central platform; one wonders what to make of comments by Our Man in Malta about ”negotiating’ (haa) their takeover’.
Speaking of which, we’re starting to see the new centralised British Embassy websites emerging. Here’s a few examples I’ve found by guessing the URLs: Malta, France, China, Belgium, Canada, Korea (S), Iran. Intriguing to note that whilst most countries are set up with password-protected ‘UKinWherever’ URLs, there’s no ‘UKinIreland’. Political sensitivity about that notion, I guess.
And while we’re in King Charles Street… I missed the recent experiment with Twitter: a dozen entries over a week, following the Projecting British Islam trip to Egypt. I wasn’t the only one to miss it, though: it only attracted a dozen ‘followers’. And I’m pretty sure one of them was not David Miliband (in-joke – sorry).
At 11:30 this morning, Hazel Blears burst onto the Twitter scene. Six hours later, and we’re already up to her tenth tweet on the microblogging service. I feel as if my entire afternoon has been punctuated by the latest update on what Hazel is doing. Or indeed, not doing.
I’m all for departments experimenting with Twitter… especially the department whose specific remit includes ‘communities’. But there are a few fundamental problems with their assault on Twitter, which we need to rectify sharp-ish.
For starters, who ‘is’ CommunitiesUK? It reads like it’s Blears’s PA: all ‘Hazel is this’, ‘Hazel is that’. First person stuff, all personal and a bit touchy-feely, but written in the third person. As others have also noted, it feels really weird. And it doesn’t sit too well with the account’s ‘Bio’: ‘The official 7 day empowerment twitter channel for Communities and Local Government.’ Does the capitalisation imply that it’s the Department’s channel? (What exactly is ‘7-day empowerment’ anyway?)
And frankly, there’s just too much of it. Ten tweets in an afternoon, all one-way, even on a big day for the Department, is a lot. I don’t need a before, during and after tweet about every public engagement. I don’t want to know if ‘Hazel is excited about writing her first blog post‘. Just tell me when she’s published it. Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not against experimental use of new channels like this. I’m just keen to see it get off on the right footing.
I get the feeling they’re consciously following the example of @DowningStreet. But their third-person approach – ‘The PM is…’ – works because 10 Downing Street is the Prime Minister. The relationship between DCLG (with its 5000+ staff) and Hazel Blears is completely different. This has to be either Hazel’s personal channel; or the department’s corporate channel. Unlike @DowningStreet, it can’t be both.
PS: In case you missed it… some very positive words from the Washington Post this week about No10’s G8 efforts. ‘Gordon Brown is stealing the G-8 show online,’ they wrote. ‘[@Downingstreet] has more than 3,000 followers, and is part of the prime minister’s ongoing Web-savvy operation.’ 🙂
In all the analysis of Ken’s downfall and Boris’s triumph, one element I hope doesn’t get ignored is the turnout. The RSA’s Matthew Taylor blogged on Friday suggesting it was the most interesting result of all, and I’m inclined to agree – although possibly for the opposite reason.
The London mayoral contest should have been the perfect electoral tussle. With all due respect to Paddick et al, it was always a two-horse race. Two instantly recognisable figures, well known by both broadsheet and tabloid readerships. A posh bloke versus a champion of the working class, neither of them ‘party men’. Plenty of real local issues to focus on. Plenty of media exposure too. A fairer electoral system, allowing you a ‘free vote’ for your first preference (with all the possibilities that offers) before casting your ‘proper’ second vote. And most importantly, an end result that was genuinely in the balance.
Yet it only stirred 45% of Londoners to bother to vote. Granted, this was up from previous years: 34% in 2000, and 37% in 2004. But it falls well, well short of the 70% we used to expect at general elections. And it means that, even taking both first and second preference votes into account, the winner only won the active support of 21.5% of the total electorate.
Of course we should be happy to see turnout rising. But it’s hard to imagine an election that could have been easier to ‘sell’ to the voters; and we only managed 45%. It’s not great, is it. PS: Interesting to see the Tories heavily promoting their Twitter account on the conservatives.com homepage. We knew it was official, but I guess this makes it a formal comms channel for them… although I note the promo goes for the ‘subscribe via SMS’ approach, watering down the commitment to Twitter a bit.
A bit of a surprise this morning to discover that the venerable Today Programme is on Twitter… with its first tentative tweets as far back as September last year, and a (more or less) daily service since December. The username ‘todaytrial’ doesn’t imply that it’s being taken too seriously… although it’s built into their BBC website pages. I suspect someone may now be regretting that choice of username. And it’s a rather incestuous ‘Following’ list, consisting solely of other BBC services. Downing Street‘s Twitter efforts are front page news in the Guardian this morning – see the actual text here – which should help them pass the 1500 friends mark imminently. Meanwhile, it looks like the Tories are taking Twitter more seriously, with updates being written in Twhirl – and, intriguingly, nothing from Twitterfeed in a few days. Still only a modest 60-odd friends, though. That Labour account is still nothing more than Twitterfeeding, with no indication if it’s official or not, and an even more modest 21 followers.
PS: I see a few other recent political additions to the Twittersphere include Boris Johnson – who appears to be texting them in; and Comment Is Free, for whom Twitter might be the key to making the whole CiF experience more practical. @brianpaddick has been at it since January; if it’s official, @kenlivingstone is leaving it a bit late.
It doesn’t actually mean anything, but well done to Downing Street for topping 1,000 followers on Twitter. The Twitterholic website collates a popularity contest, which suggests there’s still a l-o-n-g way to go to top Barack Obama in terms of followers – but they’ve already issued more updates in a fortnight than he’s put out in almost a year.
As for the last week’s other Twitter newbies: the Conservatives official-but-don’t-tell-anyone account has attracted just 48 followers, but that’s still many more than Labour‘s (official? unofficial?) account, which claims just 10. The ConservativeHome blog features a mere 28, with no postings in a few days… perhaps the novelty has worn off.