The Twitter Holdouts

Why is more than half of Congress still not on Twitter?

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.

Rep. Barney Frank is an outspoken guy with a knack for word craft—in other words, a born tweeter. Frank, though, has decided not to use the microblogging service. His rationale is less about fear of technology than distaste for the format. “A hundred forty characters is too restrictive,” he says, “and anyway I don’t think people really want to know what I had for lunch.”

Frank isn’t on the fringe on this issue. More than two years after Twitter’s founding, and a year after microblogging really took off in Washington, only 185 members of Congress—about a third—have signed up. (That said, most Republicans tweet, and the GOP outnumbers Democrats on the site 2-to-1.) It’s easy to dismiss the Twitter holdouts as luddites destined for the trash heap of history, but members of Congress have their reasons for holding out.

The most common rationale for the Twitter holdouts: It’s not the best way to communicate with their constituents. Frank instead uses Facebook, which allows for longer posts and provides a better interface to engage supporters. Rep. Louie Gohmert doesn’t use the tool simply because people in his East Texas district don’t use it. They use Facebook—see a pattern?—where Gohmert currently boasts 2,451 fans. If his district starts tweeting, so will he. Same with New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler. “We have nothing against Twitter,” says his press secretary, Ilan Kayatsky. “But we haven’t yet found a compelling reason to use it.”

Many are taking a wait-and-see approach. Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and thus oversees the 2010 House races, doesn’t use the service because in his opinion, the jury’s still out. “I’m not sure it has a huge future,” he said back in April. “My kids don’t Twitter.” Others simply haven’t gotten around to it. “Stay tuned,” says Joe Lieberman’s office. Nancy Pelosi’s office has a feed with 450 followers but hasn’t started posting yet.

One major problem, congressional staffers say, is resources. Reps barely have time for interviews—how can they (or, in most cases, their staff) find time to tweet? Twitter advocates reject this excuse. Nick Schaper, who handles new media for House Minority Leader John Boehner, says that “as far as resources allocated, it’s just about nil.”

A more fundamental problem is that, so far at least, members of Congress just aren’t that good at it. A report released by the Congressional Research Service in September found that nearly half of congressional tweets simply link to press releases or news articles. (The report doesn’t distinguish between the two, but an informal survey of congressional feeds suggests the former are more common.) The next most common type of tweet describes an official congressional action, like a roll call vote or a trip abroad. “Personal” tweets and those related to business in their district—the two types of messages most likely to interest constituents—were the least common types.

Sure, linking to press releases isn’t a terrible thing. But people don’t sign up for Twitter to get updates on their representative’s obscure pet project. That’s what Web sites are for. Twitter is about glimpsing how a person thinks.

Who are the best congressional tweeters? The site Klout.com  measures a Twitter user’s influence by accounting for more than 25 factors, including reach (number of followers), engagement (how many @ replies you receive), and “velocity” (how often your messages get re-tweeted). The site then gives you a score between 0 and 100. The average score for users in general is about 15. The average score for members of Congress is 20—pretty weak, considering they’re public figures with built-in fan bases.

Topping the Klout roster these days is Sen. John McCain, whose 1.6 million followers earn him a hardy 74 points. Trailing close behind is Sen. Claire McCaskill, who scored 71 in October, but whose score has since fallen to 54. McCaskill’s tweets are famously personal, albeit anticlimactic: “Sat by David Axelrod last night …,” she revealed last Wednesday. Exciting! What’s the juice? “Talked about family … and healthcare.” Oh. McCaskill joined Twitter to combat the perception during her Senate campaign that she was cold and aloof. Apparently it worked. Texas Rep. John Culberson rates a score of 35 but is one of Congress’ most vocal Twitter evangelists. He’s also a paragon of engagement: As of this writing, 60 of his last 80 tweets were @ replies.

For these members, Twitter makes sense. But others feel that the service hasn’t proven itself in the political realm. To what extent does all this tweeting actually help a politician? The evidence isn’t especially scientific. The DCCC points to boosted fundraising as proof that tweeting pays, but they don’t distinguish between donations resulting from Twitter and those resulting from an e-mail blast. It’s also unclear that having more followers is always better. Just because you have 800,000 followers doesn’t mean you’re more effective than someone who has 20,000. “The critical issue is how active are their followers?” says Micah Sifry of Personal Democracy Forum. “And that’s a lot harder to measure.”

There’s also a perceived risk of embarrassment—and for some of the more knuckleheaded members, a genuine one. Twitter has hosted many an unforced error. In February, Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra broke a press embargo on a secret congressional trip when he revealed on Twitter that he had “Just landed in Baghdad.” Newt Gingrich chose Twitter as the venue for his famous denigration of Sonia Sotomayor as “racist.” It also seems to bring out the third grader in every member. “It was very heart warming to see the miliyary and especially the wounded warrios honored at the tiger woods tournament in Washington,” Gingrich tweeted in July. Sen. Chuck Grassley, meanwhile, seems to have invented his own language for the sole purpose of tweeting. One recent gem: “Did Bfast Wloo Gates Optimist Pancakes. Helps w education at Cunningham school. Rest of Sat at finals HS Voleyball in CRapids.” (For Grassley’s more contentious tweets, see here.)

Of course, there’s no more risk in posting a tweet than in opening one’s mouth. If anything, there’s less, since Twitter gives you the chance to review your message before posting. Handled correctly, Twitter can do as much damage control as damage. It gives you a chance to correct and respond to misperceptions before they take root. If Lieberman used Twitter, he could defend himself against those who deploy the hashtag #dumpJoe, or at least defuse some of the rancor.

Twitter is by no means done growing in Congress. With every member of the House and a third of the Senate up for re-election in 2010, chances are we will see more tweeting as incumbents exploit every possible means of communication. But even then, there are going to be obstacles. Ethics, for one. Right now, representatives aren’t allowed to conduct campaign business using time, equipment, or resources paid for by taxpayers. This extends to BlackBerrys. If your Berry is paid for using Senate funds, you’re technically not allowed to tweet about your campaign. Some candidates, like Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is running for governor, have carefully created separate campaign feeds. What happens if a member slips up? One word: Twittergate.