Opinion: Daily Journal

The Democracy of Tweets

While gathering some performance metrics for North Carolina policy nonprofits, I noticed an interesting trend in the data from the microblogging site Twitter. While you might think that the most-followed Twitter accounts on state politics would all be associated with large institutions, it turns out that quite a few of them are personal accounts of independent bloggers and activists.

For the purposes of this study, I looked at tweets under the #ncpol, #ncgov, and #ncga hash tags during a recent week. Then I ranked the relevant Twitter accounts by the number of followers. Here were the top 25:

24,310 — Raleigh News & Observer
19,551 — Sister Toldjah
17,499 — di kele
17,132 — betseyross
12,995 — Gov. Pat McCrory
12,871 — Pam Spaulding
12,329 — Tom Reynolds
9,265 — U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx
9,077 — N.C. Republican Party
7,987 — News 14 Carolina
7,798 — U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers
6,015 — WRAL-TV Government Coverage
5,766 — WWAY-TV
4,537 — Andria Krewson
4,285 — Publius2013
4,234 — N.C. Democratic Party
4,196 — Americans for Prosperity-North Carolina
4,126 — U.S. Rep. David Price
4,115 — John Locke Foundation
3,559 — Mark Binker (WRAL-TV)
3,413 — Zan Bunn
3,220 — Under the Dome (News & Observer)
3,157 — N.C. Senate Republicans
3,127 — Charlotte City Councilman Warren Cooksey
2,938 — House Speaker Thom Tillis

While many of the politicians, media outlets, and organizations are probably familiar to you, do you recognize the names Sister Toldjah or Pam Spaulding? They are North Carolina-based commentators with a significant following. Sister Toldjah is a conservative (and friend of mine) who has written about state and national affairs for many years. Pam Spaulding writes political and social commentary from a progressive perspective, with a particular emphasis on gay and lesbian issues.

Twitter, Facebook, and other social media tools (including old-school blogging) have truly democratized the production and dissemination of political news and commentary. In the past, attracting a substantial audience for your opinions would have required approaching an institutional gatekeeper – such as a newspaper, magazine, or broadcast station – and making a convincing case for publishing or broadcasting your work. With limited column inches or broadcast time and lots of people competing for it, your odds of success weren’t great, particularly if your goal wasn’t a single placement but a regular slot. Once the political conversation moved online, however, the costs of production and dissemination plummeted, as did the barriers to entry for newcomers and those with difficult-to-pigeonhole ideas.

In fact, by making a list of accounts with the largest followings on state politics, I’m actually understating the democratizing effect of social media. While there may not be that many Sister Toldjahs or Pam Spauldings with followers in the five figures, there are a great many people who share their political opinions with dozens or hundreds of friends and followers. Add up their total audience, and you have a massive amount of political conversation going on without much in the way of cost or gatekeeping. Cool.

By the way, another thing you may noticed about this list is that it is a bit conservative-heavy. Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t. For all the national talk about how the Right is inept at using online media to reach emerging audiences, the reality has long been very different in North Carolina. Right-of-center individuals, organizations, and politicians tend to attract significantly more web traffic and social-media contacts. In my study of conservative and liberal policy groups, for example, the conservative ones average two to three times the online audience of their liberal counterparts, depending on the measure used.

Before conservatives blow fanfares and liberals blow raspberries, I’d urge everyone to think carefully about why this might be so. One likely explanation, it seems to me, is that when people see themselves as outsiders, they are more motivated to rally, organize, and network. Until recently, North Carolina conservatives were clearly on the outside looking in. Now that the political winds have shifted in Raleigh, I expect progressives to use social-media tools to rally, organize, and network in opposition.

In the midst of that, perhaps some of them will recognize the virtues of competition.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and a contributor to First in Freedom: Transforming Ideas into Consequences for North Carolina.