Young people have been using Twitter, an online social networking tool, for three years to gossip among themselves in text messages or "tweets" of 140 characters or less. Now state government officials and agencies are tapping into its possibilities.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) used Twitter Tuesday (April 28) to let people know what his state was doing about swine flu. And one of Schwarzenegger's would-be successors - San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (D) - alerted supporters that he would run for the state's highest office in 2010 via the same process.
Schwarzenegger and Newsom are among a growing number of politicians and agencies taking advantage of the latest tool in text messaging to inform the public and rally support.
Twitter is a free service that any computer-savvy individual can use to send very brief notes - or "tweets" - on their computer or cell phone to a network of friends, family, coworkers and other "followers."
Web watchers estimate that 3 million Twitter messages were sent each day in March, and more than a million people used the service. The Pew Internet & American Life Project, which, like Stateline.org, is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, reported that as of December 2008, 11 percent of American adults who use the Internet accessed Twitter or a similar service.
Arkansas House Majority Leader Steve Harrelson (D), who maintains a blog and a Twitter feed, told Stateline.org he sends Twitter updates to constituents and state Capitol insiders after a vote in his judiciary committee. "I'm able to get my information out there before my local daily newspaper does," he said. Harrelson said he uses social media for government transparency and because of its immediacy and lack of media filters..
The National Conference of State Legislatures has a directory of state legislative caucuses which use social media. Thirteen caucuses twitter about their activities. State Senate Democrats in the state of Washington send out messages like: "The Senate is out of caucus and is heading back to the floor to hear more bills!" They go on to list bills that are being voted on.
At the federal level, TweetCongress tracks U.S. senators and representatives who use Twitter and encourages those who don't to sign up. The site's database is searchable by name and location and includes a state-by-state breakdown.
Chris McCroskey, one of the creators of TweetCongress, said he's open-sourcing - or giving away - his site's design so others can copy it to track the federal government or state government on Twitter.
GovTwit, a directory of "all facets of government on Twitter," lists officials and agencies at all levels of government as well as contractors, journalists and academics. The directory is updated by Steve Lunceford, a spokesman for BearingPoint, a management and technology consulting company. Lunceford said there are about 230 names in the state and local category out of 1,000 in the directory as a whole.
Among the 15 governors who use Twitter, Schwarzenegger's page is the most popular - more than 54,000 people subscribe to it. New Mexico Democrat Gov. Bill Richardson has the fewest number of Twitter devotees at about 200.
Most governors' pages offer fairly bland news releases, but a few offer occasional personal commentary. Will Franklin, director of new media for Gov. Rick Perry's re-election campaign, said the Texas Republican looks at Twitter on his Blackberry and tweets personally.
Perry sometimes responds to messages. The only thing Franklin does on Perry's account is to follow back people who follow him - considered Twitter etiquette.
Perry's updates are a mix of personal and political commentary. For example, at 9:49 p.m. on March 27 he wrote, "Surprised my mom for her 80th birthday dinner tonight. Spending time w/ family always makes you feel centered, doesn't it?"
At 9:57 a.m. the previous morning he'd written, "Some of our federal partners do not understand that Hurricane Ike is 2nd most costly in US history, only behind Katrina..$50B in losses."
Perry was referring to a hurricane that struck the Galveston area last year, causing widespread property loss.
Twitter is not the rage for everyone. North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue (D) scolded legislators for using it during her state of the state address this year.
Perdue delivered the tongue-lashing while discussing education problems. "For too many students, they actually ignore what's going on in the classroom while they are busy "tweeting" on Twitter. Just like I see some of you doing while I'm talking," she said.