Saul Hansell has an interesting discussion of the role of Twitter in mediating the 2008 election in his New York Times Bits blog. As most of my readers will know, I’m a fairly active Twitterer, and in fact, many of the ideas that would have turned into short blog posts have now become 140-character soundbites on Twitter instead. I don’t believe I’m alone in this shift in blogging habit (if I remember correctly, someone raised this question on Twitter the other day), and it’s tempting to regard the rise of Twitter as an example of the further dominance of soundbite politics, the triumph of snark over substance.
But like Hansell, I think this misunderstands how Twitter can be used. Sure, Twitter allows us to post knee-jerk reactions to campaign speeches and political debates, but I’ll gladly admit that I found it incredibly therapeutic during the conventions to “watch” the convention speeches with Twitter friends and acquaintances scattered across the country (and possibly the globe). Because Twitter allows both immediate “publication” and requires a limited number of characters, it privileges the spontaneous and conversational, almost like a more public form of IM.
More important, from my perspective, is that Twitter also serves as an alternative means for sharing links. Much like del.icio.us or Digg, Twitter operates like a social bookmarking site. I knew, for example, that even though I forgot to watch Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin sketch live last night on Saturday Night Live, someone would have a link to the video posted in their Twitter feed the following morning. It turns out that “Rachel Maddow” did (I have no idea, of course, whether it’s the “real” Rachel Maddow). And, of course, if you haven’t seen the video, which parodies Palin’s interview with Katie Couric, it’s hilarious. Fey nails Palin’s distinct mannerisms and even quotes word-for-word Palin’s incoherent response to Couric’s questions about the Alaska governor’s foreign policy experience.
Hansell also points out the value of the new Election 08 feed created by Twitter, which compiles all election posts in a real time feed, allowing for a virtual snapshot of public responses to political news. But in my case, I usually lose interest in the election feed somewhat quickly. It’s a nice tool for knowing what others are saying (and for finding other political links), but I usually prefer the somewhat slower, but more contextualized, conversations with my preexisting network of friends.