Why are there so few active tweeters in the General Assembly?

Aug 7, 2012

Switching to an iPhone from a BlackBerry was all it took for state Representative Jon Brien to become a Twitter enthusiast earlier this year.

The BlackBerry interface for Twitter was “useless,” and Brien says, “I really didn’t get Twitter.” But a new world of information and communication opened up when  he signed up for a Twitter handle on his iPhone last spring.

The Woonsocket Democrat emerged before long as one of the most active tweeters in the General Assembly, using the social-messaging service to get the latest breaking news while sending his own mini-missives (including daggers for NYT columnist Joe Nocera) into the universe. “Now I really enjoy Twitter,” Brien told me in a recent interview. (It also suits his political persona as a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy.)

I use it more to get information. Sometimes I exchange funny tweets with guys like you, Ian. But for the most part I use it just as a way to exchange information, what I’m up to, to let people know things I’m reading that I think are rather relevant.

It allows me also as a news junkie to get quick information from various news sources that I rely on anyway, like, for instance, the Wall Street Journal, Drudge Report, I’m on with Bloomberg ….

What’s unusual about this situation isn’t that Brien became a Twitter devotee. It’s that so few of his 112 colleagues in the House and Senate have done likewise.

The most active tweeter in the General Assembly, Representative Dan Gordon of Portsmouth, sometimes tweaks reporters about how he has a greater number of followers. (Gordon didn’t get enough signatures to get on the ballot, so his term will come to an end in January.) A few legislators, like Senator Bethany Moura, tweet with less frequent regularity. But the vast majority of lawmakers are never heard from on Twitter.

A few years back, during the era of the Arab Spring, it seemed as if social media might upset the Smith Hill apple cart, at least on occasion.

A prime case came when then-Reps Ray Sullivan and Chris Fierro used tweets to announce their opposition to local aid cuts in the FY2009 budget, sparking the restoration of some of the money.

The popularity of Twitter has only grown since then — so much so that some thought a recent outage was due to the frequency of tweets during the Olympics.

But you might think we’re still in the era of black and white televisions judging by the social media use of many lawmakers. (The only uptick seems to be on the part of those facing primary fights, like Senate Finance Chairman Daniel DaPonte, and such allies as Helio Melo; then again, Melo’s monitoring of Ted Nesi’s Twitter bleats about the lack of wi-fi in Room 35 yielded progress.)

For his part, Jon Brien isn’t sure why his legislative colleagues don’t use Twitter.

Part of  it may have to do with how Twitter lends itself to those with a rebel or insurgent steak, on either the left or the right. Much of the legislative process — slow (until it’s not), cloaked in the shadows — is at odds with Twitter’s of-the-moment velocity.

Brien says some lawmakers may fear leaving their digital tracks in perpetuity or don’t see the value of the medium. Others steer clear of technology and just don’t want a smart phone, he says:

You look at a guy like Doc Corvese. I tell him all the time, you might just have the phone that Michael Douglas had on the beach at the end of Wall Street, the huge Sony with the giant rubber antenna; I mean, look at your phone, Doc, I tell him all the time.

So it goes as we head to the next session of the General Assembly.

But if another local institution can take some steps toward embracing social media, maybe the legislature will do likewise one day.

[Photo: Mycricket.com]