Crikey: @KevinRuddPM stumbles into the Twitterverse

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[This article was first published in Crikey on Friday. It covers much the same material as my previous three posts [1, 2, 3] but for a general non-Twitter audience.]

Wednesday 1.35pm. Someone logs into the newly-created account “KevinRuddPM” and types “Looking forward to communicating with you on Twitter“. Thus did our Prime Minister enter the crazy hyperconnected global front bar cum water cooler conversation that is the Twitterverse.

Twitter avatar of @KevinRuddPM

It took a couple of hours for word to spread and for KevinRuddPM to gather his first ten “followers”. But soon the numbers grew. People said their greetings, asked questions and offered opinions — and most of the opinions were calling for an end to the Internet filtering trials. Smart-arses like me even offered snarky advice.

By mid-evening, KevinRuddPM had more than 700 followers. Those hanging out for a response eagerly devoured the second Prime Ministerial tweet: “Thanks to everyone for adding me on Twitter.” [My reaction: OMFG! Kevin Rudd tweeted again!] And then all the followers suddenly disappeared. Huh?

Next day The Age reported that high demand had “crashed” KevinRuddPM’s Twitter “page”, quoting Rudd’s spokeswoman as saying, “It’s because Twitter essentially is not used to people getting so many followers in such a short time.”

Not true. Twitter comfortably copes with stars like Al Gore and Stephen Fry attracting thousands of new followers an hour. Much as a political ego might like to think their popularity is overwhelming, it wasn’t a crash. Twitter’s overly-zealous anti-spam system had kicked in when KevinRuddPM followed back all his followers in a sudden burst.

Still, the big question was whether KevinRuddPM was actually Mr call-me-Kevin Rudd himself typing, like Opposition leader TurnbullMalcolm, or an unnamed staffer. Turnbull has been using Twitter for a month and, after initially banal tweets like “reading the morning papers” he’s getting into the swing of it, replying to questions and posting links to his speeches.

Meanwhile DowningStreet is operated by three people from Gordon Brown’s digital media team. While faceless minions, they still manage to inject real personality into the role with tweets like “Among the crowds in the UN basement the PM has an unplanned catch up with Bono and Bob Geldof, here to push the development agenda” and “No10 admin is on a rain soaked freeway in New York. The sky is a bank of featureless grey cloud as the PM heads into the city”.

KevinRuddPM’s profile isn’t at all clear on this question, which is a mistake. His spokeswoman didn’t know either. She’d “need to come back with information on whether Mr Rudd updates Twitter himself,” The Age wrote.

KevinRuddPM sits on a cusp. Used well, the PM’s Twitter account could be like John Howard and talkback radio, speaking over the heads of “the media” directly to the people. Used badly, it’ll look like another lame government attempt to be hip and cool, like dad dancing at your 21st. The Twitterverse awaits with bated breath.

3 Replies to “Crikey: @KevinRuddPM stumbles into the Twitterverse”

  1. Nah, I think he/they/it is or are far less interested in being “cool” than seeing how this “new tool” can be used to manage perceptions – like the telly, but newer. Classic, centralised top-down management mentality. The name “Conroy” springs to mind.

    Maybe @KevinRuddPM has deduced that if the half-arsedness you see on a few MySpace and Facebook profiles is par for the course for today’s ‘yoof’, then presumably ‘yoof’ will respect the same in kind. Then again, maybe @KevinRuddPM just doesn’t care. Maybe it really is just belated, me-too tokenism for a medium @TurnbullMalcolm managed to utilise on his own some time ago.

    So if this “education revolution” ever sweeps the nation as promised, please let me know.
    Via Twitter.

  2. “Managing perceptions” is undoubtedly the reason the PM’s Twitter account was set up, since by all accounts that’s still the core mentality of political advisors. I daresay they haven’t given Twitter much resourcing because, as Paull Young points out, Twitter “reaches so few of his citizens (and even actively locks out those on the wrong side of the digital divide).”

    Nevertheless, apart from perception-management there’s four key reasons to Get Twitter Right Now which I haven’t seen discussed as much:

    1. Even though Twitter is relatively small with 3 million users or so, it’s also growing fast and representative of an important emerging mode of communication. It’s probably important to learn the lessons — and yes, stumble a few times — before it’s even bigger and the mistakes are seen by even more people.
    2. If you’re trying to promote your government’s “Fresh Thinking” (remember that slogan? is it still valid?) then it’s probably a good idea to be seen using some of the fresh tools.
    3. While the Twitter audience community is relatively small, it’s also very well-connected. Twitter users aren’t smarter or more relevant than anyone else, but they are connected to a fast-working network. That means others are increasingly turning to them for comment and opinion. The “mainstream media” is starting to report “what Twitter thinks”.
    4. Just as important as the message going out is the message coming back. Twitter provides a mechanism for seeing what people think that’s fast and unfiltered. Like other politicians, the PM relies almost exclusively on a worldview that’s filtered by his entourage. Twitter can help avoid the pitfalls there.

    I’m still curious about the advice the PM’s getting about Twitter. Who is it?

  3. @Stilgherrian: Re #3 — Not to big-note myself, but over the last 2 to 3 months I’ve been finding myself to be more and more a first source of new information about this & that in casual face-to-face conversations with people. And Twitter has played a large role in that. Not as a source of news itself, but as a synapse between packets of news, ideas, and their authors and readers.

    (Notice how the single greatest communication revolution since the printing press still doesn’t alter the human fundamentals of communication itself. Tools and efficiencies improve and business models expire. But the desire to connect, share information and learn is right where it’s stayed since the year dot. Surprise, surprise. So much for the legacy media fogies demanding something be done to ensure a future for … whatever it is that they’re supposed to do.)

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