Tweeting all fellow twavellers

I have a very simple proposition: It is time conservatives got with the times and grabbed Web 2.0 by the horns. Otherwise we should pack our bags and concede defeat to the left in the culture wars.

Here is the problem. By eschewing social media – for fear of technology, fear of what we don’t understand, and in order to protect our children from its unsavoury excesses – we are in danger of becoming the troglodytes of the intellectual battlefield. We are handing victory -- on every point of contention from abortion and gay marriage to national security and social welfare -- to the other side.

Conservatives simply are losing political and moral ground in the information age because, armed with the propaganda instruments of a previous age, we cannot enlist the support of a generation that is growing up immersed in social media. Just look at the results of the last US presidential election. It was overwhelmingly won by Barack Obama on social media platforms that the Republicans did not understand. Barack Obama may have won the election regardless thanks to the ineptitude of his Republican predecessor; but the Obama camp’s use of social media to mobilize supporters and organize their campaign ensured an overwhelming victory for the Democrats with the highest youth voter turnout on record.

Conservatives lost the battle on Twitter, on the blogs and the vlogs, on MySpace and Facebook, and on Youtube. We are losing the war because we continue to cling to dying traditional media platforms (TV, radio, newspapers and magazines) and their static, one-way communications websites while failing to grasp the basics of the new media.

Nabbing the youth vote

The numbers tell the story. By the time President Obama was elected more than 500 million blog articles could be found online about him, his campaign and policies, compared with just 150 million on John McCain. No doubt a good many of those posts were critical of Obama; but then so were a good number of the blog posts on McCain. In this case it is the volume of posts that speaks volumes.

On social networks like MySpace, Obama had more “friends” than McCain – a lot more. By the time the election was held Obama had some 844,927 friends compared to McCain’s 219,404. On the micro-blogging site Twitter, Obama trounced McCain with 118,107 followers compared with 4,942.

The US election has always been a popularity contest. But, whereas Thomas Jefferson and John Adams only had to influence a few hundred Electoral College delegates directly by targeted letter writing campaigns and visits by their proxies and surrogates, today’s candidates need to reach a mass audience with the tools of modern communication. What Obama demonstrated was the ability to bypass the traditional media (which is in decline anyway) and take his campaign directly to the voters, young voters in particular. Indeed, figures show that 52 per cent of users of the Facebook social networking site are aged 18-25, a demographic strongly targeted by the Obama campaign. Consequently the youth voter turnout record was broken on election day 2008. No prizes for guessing who this demographic voted for.

Just as Obama used social media in a sophisticated way to mobilize his target audience to win last November’s election, every one who considers himself a political or social conservative needs to learn and master this new means of communication. Social media are to our age what the printing press was to the Reformation. We neglect it at our own peril.

‘Friend’ is a verb now -- get used to it

Unfortunately, I am dismayed by everything I read about social media by writers on conservative websites, including MercatorNet. All they can do is point fingers, complain and ridicule the medium because they are dismayed by all the bad stuff you can find on social media sites. True. It is all there – pornography, internet bullying, bad manners, and bad grammar and spelling -- and I am dismayed by all those as much as any of my fellow conservatives.

But shunning social media, from Facebook to Twitter to Youtube, is not the answer. Obama’s win proved it.

Rather we need to be engaged. Just as the Counter-Reformation also had to leverage the printing press, we need to leverage social media. It is time to open accounts on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and Youtube, to start “friending” others and stop complaining that “friend” is not a verb.

Just as politicians and major corporations are using social media to get their messages out, thinking conservatives need to do so too. Unfortunately, if you go to the blogs or Twitter accounts of many leading conservative thinkers, like Peggy Noonan and Anne Coulter, you realize they have an appalling lack of knowledge of social media and how to leverage it. They have plain failed to friend the right people or achieve sufficient numbers of followers to really drive political and social debate on Web 2.0.

The key failing of the McCain campaign was to understand that social media is about user-generated content. The McCain camp seemed to think they had to drive it all from the top down as they had always done with traditional media.

But social media is different. It’s very difference is highlighted by the word “social”. This means it is about individuals interacting with others who share their views and experiences.

It is time conservatives started to friend, blog, vlog, and tweet in genuinely social ways - or die.

Tweeting purposefully

Blogging and vlogging are not for everyone and I don’t recommend everyone try those. They are heavy lifting and, if done well, take a serious commitment. Good blogs need to be well written and good videos need to be well made. They take time, effort and real thought. Of course, if you have something to say and can commit the resources, go for it.

But tweeting is a different ball game and should be adopted by everyone with purpose. While Twitter has been ridiculed as the Internet medium for telling people about the most mundane details of your life (“having coffee in Starbucks” and “bought milk at the grocery store”), it is fast evolving beyond that. Companies have discovered it as a way to get their messages out, directly to their stakeholders and media outlets, like CNN and the Financial Times, are now using Twitter to drive traffic to their websites for breaking news and op-ed pieces.

How can conservatives use Twitter to drive the political and social agenda? It’s easy. Start by registering an account. If you don’t want to show your real name, make up a name like “RepublicanRapunzel” or whatever works for you. If you want to see what leading conservatives are tweeting, search for them under their real names and then link to follow them on Twitter. You’ll find that other people who follow them may start following you as well.

The math of it is simple – the more people you follow, the more followers you will acquire. You can either build up a mass following by following masses of other tweeters, or you can take a strategic approach and just follow a select group of people, such as fellow conservatives and conservative websites.

While you will get the tweets of all the people you follow, you don’t have to read them all. So don’t worry that Betty-Sue is tweeting about being at the hairdresser’s or the grocery store. Be selective. Only read the tweets of the people that interest you and that you trust. For example, while I’m technically following more than 70 people on my personal Twitter account and more than 200 on an account I manage for a client, I am in fact only reading the tweets of about seven people. They are a couple of journalists that I know, or media outlets that I trust, or opinion websites that I like. That’s it. I don’t read the tweets of everyone else I am following and you don’t have to either.

Nor am I under the illusion that everyone following me is reading my tweets. I know most of them are not. Indeed, many are companies linking to me to build their own following. It’s all part of the game. But the way I look at it is, if there are seven good people following then I must be having an impact. Because those seven people will have seven people truly following them. And their seven true followers will have their own seven true followers and so on and so forth. You get the idea. It’s about creating a tidal wave by starting a ripple.

The other big myth about Twitter is that you need to be plugged in and hooked up to it 24/7. There are people who live their lives on it, but you don’t have to. I check in about every two days – when I have something valuable to tweet. At that time I check what the seven people I follow are saying to see if they are pointing me to good information. Maybe someone has a comment about a good article in the Washington Post, with a link to it. I follow the link. In a lot of ways, Twitter has made my research more efficient – my fellow netizens are doing the work for me and pointing me in the right direction. It saves me hours of Googling for the same stories and I have the verification of those I trust.

It doesn’t get better than that.

Of course, there are unsavoury people on the Internet, pornographers, child molesters and other scoundrels. But then they may be living in your neighbourhood as well. But you don’t know. So what do you do? Move to another street, another city or another country? No. You lock the door so they can’t get in; and if you find out about them you report them to the police. Do the same with Twitter. When the pornographers and other creeps come knocking or try to friend me I block them. It’s easy – you just have to check on who is trying to become a follower on a regular basis; I receive an email as soon as someone links to me on Twitter. If I am suspicious I get online as soon as I can and I read their profile. If they prove to be a creep, I block them.

It’s time to stop twitching at the thought of tweeting and get on Twitter. Come on; I’ll follow you if you’re a fellow traveler. The more conservatives that get on Twitter and other social media sites, the more balance we can introduce into the debates taking place on Web 2.0.

Alistair Nicholas is the founder of AC Capital Strategic Consulting, a China-based communications advisory and training company. He also advises companies on the use of social media and search engine optimization strategies. He blogs at Off The Record and he tweets under the name alinicholas on Twitter.


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