Twitter use growing among local politiciansA growing number of area politicians use the free Internet social networking tool -- lawmakers and candidates, county commissioners and a city council member.
By: Scott Wente, Woodbury Bulletin
Commissioner Lisa Weik usually treats it like an online calendar, but recently used it to rip a colleague.
Karin Housley pleads for campaign money and says it would be foolish for her not to use it.
Rep. Marsha Swails follows up-to-the-minute legislative developments and sometimes waxes philosophic about home life.
All three are among area elected officials using Twitter to “tweet” their own 140-character missives or to follow others.
A growing number of politicians use the free Internet social networking tool -- lawmakers and candidates, county commissioners and a city council member.
They say it is an effective way to communicate with voters, allows them to monitor their colleagues’ work and even can be a creative outlet.
The subject matter varies, but some local users' tweets are more candid than any campaign literature or news release a voter would receive.
Weik, who represents most of Woodbury on the Washington County Board, used Twitter to criticize another board member's budget approach:
“News hinting no support 4 last-min tax cuts proposed by Dist2...hard 2 support what u haven't been given time 2 read. This isn't Congress.”
That referred to spending cuts proposed by Commissioner Bill Pulkrabek. Weik had vented at a county board meeting and continued on Twitter.
That was among Weik's many postings. She is a prolific tweeter and said Twitter can improve government transparency.
If voters want to know what Weik is up to, they can check Twitter. She often posts her schedule and upcoming meeting information.
A campaign tool
While Weik has used Twitter since last summer, Karin Housley formed an account last month for her campaign for state Senate in District 57.
A first-time candidate for office, Housley, a Republican, said she does not understand why some “old-school politicians” do not use it.
“I want to sit them down and say, 'Get moving, you're missing a whole audience,'” said Housley, who also has a non-campaign Twitter account.
The goal of campaigning is to get your name before voters often, she said. Twitter and other Internet tools, like Facebook, make that easy.
“And,” Housley added, “it's a free medium.”
In recent weeks Housley used Twitter to seek end-of-year political donations.
Twitter was created in mid-2006, but its use among Minnesota elected officials and political observers exploded in early 2009.
More politicians have signed on since, said Eric Ostermeier, of the University of Minnesota Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.
Ostermeier has studied Twitter use among Minnesota lawmakers. He analyzed tweet content and who was following politicians on Twitter.
Some politicians have broad Twitter appeal, Ostermeier said. That includes U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has nearly 12,000 followers. Her 6th District includes Woodbury.
Bachmann Democratic challengers Tarryl Clark and Maureen Reed also tweet about their campaign work.
Local tweeters have far fewer followers than Bachmann or her opponents. For instance, Swails has fewer than 300, Weik less than 100.
By design, Twitter does not offer in-depth information and has its limits, Ostermeier said. Tweets are brief.
“You can't really learn what someone believes other than, 'I'm for this,' or 'I'm against this,'” he said.
Still, it is possible to learn interesting things about elected officials, Ostermeier said -- “or at least what they want to reveal.”
Some officials use Twitter to criticize opponents and others track their colleagues. Still others signed on because it is popular.
Then there is Swails. A Democrat, Swails tweets about serving in the Minnesota House. And she tweets about life in her house and classroom.
During the legislative session last spring, she tweeted about bills she wanted passed, vetoes she opposed and speeches that were too long.
Swails, of Woodbury, also sometimes quotes poetry she finds relevant to a situation. Many of her tweets have something in common.
“Most of my posts are in haiku,” Swails said of the three-line poetry form. “I know that sounds crazy.”
But Swails, a Woodbury High School English teacher, said it is helpful to tweet in haiku because it requires concise, descriptive language.
“This is kind of a mental workout for a creative writer,” she said. “I just put into practice the things that I teach my own students.”
Because space is limited in each tweet, they often are rife with acronyms, spelling errors and shorthand.
“Everything’s abbreviated,” Ostermeier said.
Poor grammar and sloppy shorthand can frustrate an English teacher, Swails admitted.
“But,” she added, “I also teach my creative writing students it's OK to break the rules once in a while.”
Some question Twitter’s value
Not all local politicians have adopted Twitter.
Pulkrabek, a Washington County commissioner, a known political wonk, so far has avoided tweeting and other social media tools.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think people are that interested in what I’m doing,” he said, adding: “Who’s got the time to do this?”
Pulkrabek said Twitter makes sense for big political campaigns, but he said he finds little value in “telling people that I’m at Cub Foods.”
Still, even Pulkrabek may soon give in, if just a little bit.
“I’m sure early 2010 I’ll be on Facebook,” he said, “but I’ve drawn a line in the sand on Twitter.”
So, how long is a 140-character tweet? No longer than any paragraph in this story and exactly the length of this paragraph. Go ahead, count.