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

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Dec. 3 2009 2:50 PM

The Twitter Holdouts

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

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. Click image to expand.
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.

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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.

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