THE STUDY JULY 5, 2011
Yesterday marked the first tweet from the Office of Vice President Joe Biden, whose foray into the world of Twitter has occasioned a few snickers among people skeptical that he can limit himself to 140 characters. (Of course, the tweets will be written by staffers who are probably less prone to verbosity and gaffes than the Vice President—the first one was a straightforward note about remembering the troops on Independence Day, about as far from a Bidenism as it gets.) But presumably the Vice President’s advisers are planning a more aggressive Twitter outreach as the 2012 campaign heats up, which raises the question: Just why do so many politicians take to Twitter anyway?
Since Twitter is such a new technology, there hasn’t been much time to analyze its use and impact—after all, it’s only been around for one U.S. presidential election. But a 2010 paper on Twitter use by members of Congress suggests that there may be a partisan divide in how politicians use the site. Feng Chi and Nathan Yang of the University of Toronto studied the Twitter adoption decisions of members of the 111th Congress and found evidence that Democrats are more likely to use the service for “transparency,” or communicating with followers, and Republicans are more likely to use it for “outreach,” or communicating to followers. For members who emphasize transparency, the authors write that the potential benefit from doing so is highest for relatively-unseasoned politicians: Since new politicians have “expansionist” tendencies early in their career, they stand to benefit more from publicizing their interactions with constituents. Seasoned politicians, on the other hand, tend to more concerned with protecting their positions, and they have less to gain from Twitter (though they may adopt it anyway—the study found that Twitter adopters tended to be safe in their seat). It remains to be seen whether Vice President Biden will emphasize transparency or outreach in his tweets; in any case, the tweets will likely be bland as long as they are crafted by super-cautious staffers. But if Biden takes after his boss and starts personally authoring tweets, his feed should get interesting fast.