How to Use Twitter for Political Advocacy

January 19, 2012


MICAH SIFRY: Hi everybody, this is Micah Sifry from Personal Democracy Media and you’re listening to another in our on-going series of Personal Democracy Plus conference calls with movers, shakers, thinkers, doers, innovators in the digital political arena.

This week we are really privileged to have Adam Sharp who is Manager for Government and Politics at Twitter with us on the call. And we’re going to be talking with him about how to use Twitter for political advocacy.

Adam, it’s a pleasure to have you. Adam, I want to start out by noting just a little bit about your background. You’re kind of an ideal person to be in this position because you both come to it with experience in media production both for places like NBC News and then on Capitol Hill as Mary Landrew’s Deputy Chief of Staff in the Senate for five years. And then more recently as Executive Producer for Digital Services at C-Span and now for the last little bit more than a year, helping build out Twitter’s presence in Washington, D.C.

So, it’s a real pleasure to have you here. I guess why don’t we start out by you know, if you’d give us an overview. Political advocacy and Twitter, what are the dos and the don’ts as you see it? What are the smart ways that you advise people to use the service and what are some of the things you might suggest people should avoid.

ADAM SHARP: Well Micah, thank you for having me on the call and thank you for everyone who’s joining us.

I think before we get into sort of civic dos and don’ts, I think I’d like to take a step back and just talk for a moment about how we fit into this whole space. I think that what you’re seeing in particular this year as we head into an election here in the United States is Twitter very rapidly becoming the real time index to the election.

We always described ourselves as a real time information network that we are most successful when we are able to instantly connect our users to the information that they’re most interested in or what is most meaningful to them.

And that often means connecting them to people and ideas that may be strangers to them. And this is sort of a break from the traditional social model of a network online should be taking your offline social relationships and bringing them into the online space and that success is defined by how much of your relationships you’re able to bring online.

I think for us a big measure of success is the number of strangers that you bring into the circle because they are printing out credible and meaningful information.

The other piece is a trend now towards scalable retail politics. And what do I mean by that? I think if you talk to any elected official, any voter, any consultant, many will take you that all the technology in the world still the most effective way of getting someone’s support is to shake their hand, look them in the eye and say hello, my name is so and such and I’d like your vote because …

And there was a time when that was pretty practical for most offices. But as an inevitable bi-product of population growth that became more and more challenging. So, technology for the last century was really focused on finding ways to wholesale the political process and to create these layers of communication, whether it was newspaper ads, radio, television, billboards, robo calls, direct mail, websites; all of which were designed to scale that political communication into more of a mass distribution model, I think to the detriment of that face-to-face contact that, hello my name is so-and-such and I’d like your vote.

And what I think we’ve seen an encouraging way with Twitter, particularly with this election cycle, is that it has –


-- all of sudden made that retail model more scalable; that candidates and advocates are able to develop that personal context, clearly not to the extent where they say okay, this person’s my best friend, but certainly to have that level of contact where a voter or potential supporter feels that they’ve had the same amount of exposure to a candidate that they would have had they shaken their hand at the train station on their way to work.

And this is really driven by using Twitter as a bi-lateral mechanism not just as another broadcast model for political communication. So, it does mean using it first and foremost as a listening device and if you are launching into a campaign whether that is a political campaign for office or a (sounds like: messenger) campaign around the cause to really take the time to search the platform and identify those conversations that you can add something meaningful to and become a part of.

I often call this cocktail party etiquette, that you walk into the party and sure you could swing the doors open and say, hello everybody, I’m here! New topic! Or you can move around the room and listen to the conversations that are going on and find the most – or the biggest opening where you can add something meaningful to that conversation. Sometimes engaging that conversation is also means being open for feedback and listening to the audience and having a back and forth.

Now there are obviously scalability issues. If you are running for president and 5,000 people ask you a question over Twitter, (inaudible) you’re not going to have time to answer all 5,000. But I think there’s two things that help mitigate that; first, because it is a public forum very often what we’ve seen is you look at the Tweets directed at members of Congress on a given day (inaudible). The vast majority tend to be tied to the new cycle of the day. If you’re an elected official and you’re getting a lot of questions over Twitter, I’d be willing to bet the majority of them are related to whatever the issue of the day is in that morning’s paper. And you’re able to as a result identify a representative sample that you reply to that satisfies the curiosity of everyone in the conversation.

And most importantly there is a massive distinction between I have no chance of getting an answer to my question and I have as much of a chance as anyone else. It’s the difference between not being called on at the Town Hall and not being even allowed in the room.

And so there can still be great success even if you can’t get to everyone of those 5,000 questions.

MICAH SIFRY: From the point of view of the voter you mean?

ADAM SHARP: Exactly. And I think the final point I would push here is that Twitter has an enormous capacity I believe to de-mystify the business of government and to humanize those who are in it.

Because of this more wholesale approach to politics and governing and technology over the last 100 years, institutions have become increasingly these mysterious concepts. It’s a generic b-roll shot to the outside of an agency building that you see every night on the evening news, but for the life of you you cannot say what happens inside that building.

And so Twitter is a tremendous opportunity to sort of step out from behind the lectern, open the doors, pull back the curtain, insert your favorite metaphor here and shed some new light to create new investment to the process of governing and politics.

So, that’s sort of the general (inaudible) and it gets to some of the best practices we talk about; listening, engaging and using it as a way to provide more transparency and better understanding because one of our core principles as a company is simply that the open exchange of information can help cause a positive effect on the world.


And I think that kind of principle of us as a company ripples through all these best practices that have seen success in the space.

MICAH SIFRY: You know, there are a lot of different ways that you can go with this conversation and you know, we’ll take the first next 20 minutes until we get to the half way point, you know just the two of us and then we’ll open it up to where folks who are listening can jump in with their own questions.

There are a lot of different ways we can go. What I want to make sure is first of all the cover what you know, you might call this quote, unquote the official use of Twitter by somebody who in their official capacity either as an elected official or staffer or representative of an organization, be it a government organization or an advocacy organization, are there specific services that Twitter offers those kinds of people to – for use.

I mean, basically the question people most often ask is how to I even get a verified account? How can I you know, sort of make sure people know it’s me?

So, why don’t we just start with some of those basics of – for people who do this for a living and they need to know that you know, when they’re using this tool, you know, that there’s some back up there. What does Twitter provide for those sorts of folks?

ADAM SHARP: Okay, well I’ll take – I’ll be very Washington and say I’ll take the second part first and start by talking about verification. I think it’s important to recognize the history and the intent of the verification program and really it is an attempt to combat impersonation on Twitter. And our approach to impersonation is twofold; there’s the reactive approach, which is a very strict impersonation policy which essentially says you cannot impersonate another person.

But then likewise we have very open parody policy which is you can make fun of them as long as everyone else is in on the joke, essentially.

MICAH SIFRY: You don’t have to use your real name, right?

ADAM SHARP: No, you do not have to use your real name, but if you were using someone else’s name, if I wanted to create an account tomorrow that was Barack Obama and had a profile and an image that tried to suggest that I really was him, that would be a violation of our policies.

If however, I took steps in that account to note that it was a parody, you know, the user name was fake for Barack Obama, the biography said, this is a parody of the President of the United States so on and so forth. At that point we actually give a rather wide berth to users to participate in parody and satire on the platform as long as it isn’t a direct impersonation.

Now you do see a lot of impersonation cases out there, certainly in the government space and that is why we do have a process for reporting impersonation and accounts that are found to be violating the policy are subject to suspension.

That is the reactive approach. The proactive approach is through verification, which is that if there is confusion among users between which account is real and which one is not, having some signal and in this case we wound up with a verification badge, to identify the real one takes wind out of the sails of the impersonators even if they have not been reported or reviewed yet.

We started the verification program a couple of years ago when we were still a very small company, and made it open to everyone and what happened was I think a lot of users saw it more as a vanity tool than recognizing its needing impersonation space. So, we had this deluge of requests and as we were putting our company brand if you will behind yes, we took responsibility and say we verified who they say they are, it just wasn’t a scalable process and so we suspended the program and did not take new verification requests.


Now as we’ve grown older and have been able develop stronger internal policies and build up more of the staff and build up a content and programming team, which is what I’m part of that works with certain key user groups, in my case government and politics that are routinely targeted for impersonation, and allowed us to come back to table and start taking a more serious approach to it. It’s still not open to the general public, but it is open to accounts that are either have been targets or in a vertical which is a frequent target for impersonation.

That all said, in general government agencies and officials can get verified. It’s something that you need to request and right now the process is that those requests for government and politics should be sent through me and hopefully over time will develop even more scalable tools to make this an even more efficient process.

MICAH SIFRY: (Overlapping remarks) Yeah, there was more to the question, go ahead.

ADAM SHARP: Yeah, to go to the first part of the question which is a little bit more broad than obviously verification. I wouldn’t quite say that we have a sort of services operation because we do not have a professional services department or something like that.

What we do have is this content of programming team which is a team inside the company chartered with the task of essentially building the “there” there making sure that when you sign up for Twitter, regardless of what your interest may be, there is content there for you to connect to.

And I said at the outset that our big success is when we were able to intimately connect users to the content that is most meaningful to them. So, we identify areas of content that is meaningful to the most people and we try to enhance the offerings in that space.

So, my role, I work to try to elevate the quantity and quality of political and government discourse on the platform, I have colleagues who work in the entertainment space, the music space, the sports space and so in that regard we are able to provide some resources, best practices. If you go to, you have some of the resources that the team has already started producing. We will be expanding those online offerings of essentially industry or vertical specific self-help tools if you will.

And then we also partner on larger scale integrations that we feel best highlight the potential for the platform; things like our work with Fox News on the Republican debate earlier this week for example, which was a project I led and I know you’ve written about a bit.

But right now there’s that site. We’ve announced that later this year we’ll be launching a unique government and politics resource site. In addition to that, we recently launched act gov which is a Twitter account dedicated to highlighting creative uses of Twitter by politicians and government agencies in the U. S. and around the world.

And the weeks and months ahead, you’ll see us starting to use that more and more actively to distribute case studies, best practices and so on. And then we’ll also soon be launching an email list where when we do produce these documents and tools, we’ll be distributing those around to interested parties in the political space as well.

That list has not started up yet, but if you go to (sounds like: bit lee) / govmail, there’s a form where you can request to be added to the list once we launch. In the meantime, you should follow @gov and check out because those will be the most scalable ways in which we provide support and service to the space.

And then I personally will be working more closely on the larger scale events (overlapping remarks).


MICAH SIFRY: Fantastic. So, I wanted to ask about two sort of tributaries that flow from this focus; one is local, right? Not everybody is a national politician or a national government official, you know? There are a lot of people who actually don’t need to connect to the national conversation but might be interested if they thought that Twitter was a way to engage better locally.

And you know, what would you recommend that they do to really succeed at that? You know, the site doesn’t really drill – you know, there’s been some efforts to sort of show what trends are happening around certain cities and I guess there is a geographic search tool, but for the most part I think we might agree that these tools are still just a beginning.

So, is there advice you would give to – whether it’s a politician who really just has a local district focus? Or an organization that is centered around a simple area where they’re not worried about the national conversation. How should they use Twitter?

ADAM SHARP: Well I think right off the bat you sort of cited the most important point as far as the questions, which is to set a realistic goal for what you’re trying to accomplish.

I often have meetings which local officials or even members of the House, for example, where they’re so fixated on follower account as a metric of their success that I think it sometimes clouds developing a good strategy for that local approach because if you’re representing a small local community for example, there’s going to be a national cap to your followers and to get beyond that they’re inherently moving beyond the geographic boundaries of where your core value is to be had. If you are setting a follower goal that is larger than the population of the community you serve, maybe it’s not serving the constituent mission you’re aiming for.

Now if you are trying to use Twitter in a different way – for example, there are officials I’ve spoken to who have said, hey, I have really good and really effective communication tools within my community, I (inaudible) so I actually feel very strong there. But I’m not a chairman, I’m not a presidential candidate, I’m never going to be booked on CNN or Fox News or MSNBC, and so I’d like to use Twitter to build a national constituency for my ideas.

Well then that’s a different set of goals and can be applied differently. So, the first thing is to really define what it is you’re trying to accomplish and if it is to think locally and be focused locally, recognize that that means and it probably does not mean that you’re going to be competing with Lady Gaga for followers.

MICAH SIFRY: Sure, but – (overlapping remarks) –

ADAM SHARP: But in a more practical sense, I think local is where you have an even more scalable opportunity for that retail interaction I talked about at the beginning of the call and to engage directly to other people and show direct results for it.

You look at local mayors like if we just did the Northeast for example, Cory Booker in Newark, Michael (inaudible) in Philadelphia, increasingly Mayor Bloomberg in New York who have all been leveraging their Twitter accounts to be more of a one-stop shop for connecting city government, having their voice heard and a platform for city services. And obviously there are smaller cities in America that they’re using it in the same way.

MICAH SIFRY: I’m going to ask a dumb question: without – I don’t know whether you can be specific, but how big is the Twitter user base in the United States and what is a realistic expectation for somebody to have?

I mean, if you’re a state senator who represents say a district of 100,000 adults, is 500 Twitter followers fantastic? 5000? I mean what’s the – Cory Booker’s a real exception I think with his million-plus (overlapping remarks) are from Newark.

So, what’s a realistic number and you know, we know that Twitter is still not yet at mass adoption where you know it isn’t 100 percent of Americans using the tool.

So, what do you think is a realistic target?


ADAM SHARP: Well there’s two ways of approaching that. There’s the pure statistical way and we’ll start with that first, which is that the latest set of public numbers we released are 100 million active users worldwide, about 70 percent of which are outside of the United States.

So, you figure that leaves about 30 million users in the U. S., which if you multiply it out it would then give you a guess of about one in 10 adults being on the platform. (Sounds like: PEW) did a study last spring where they estimated it at 9 percent of the U. S., population was actually using Twitter and at that time our total active user count was really much lower.

So, by those you probably get into a range that if you assume even distribution, you’re looking at 10 percent of low teens of the potential audience actually being active on Twitter. So, to use your example if you – I think you’re example was 100,000 in the district, if you do that kind of math it’s a potential audience of 10.

Now that said, I’m not sure all users are created equal because there will certainly be those there that have absolutely no interest in government and politics and have no interest in you at all; there will be those who have a very passive interest and are following to get information but do nothing else. And then you’ll have an audience that is very engaged and will help echo that message and re-tweet your content and engage directly with you and very often take that conversation off platform, that armed with information they receive on Twitter, bring those conversations to the water cooler at work, to the dining table and actually expose non-Twitter users to the content.

So, there is that additional fan out that isn’t exclusively on Twitter and I think there there are a few different things you can do to try to identify and define what that user base is: 1) you can go on Twitter and identify who the thought leaders are in your community already and begin to engage with them so that your conversation with them is happening in that public sphere and with visibility to the followers and community they have already built.

I think it requires rewarding those who are engaged with you by engaging back and being responsive. And sometimes that can also be off platform. Take the Cory Booker for example, what got him to that stratospheric level in the snow storm last year was that people saw real action. People could Tweet their mayor and a few minutes later he’d be on their street making sure it got shoveled.

And obviously a mayor’s not going to be able to do that for every member of the community, but going back the point I had about answering questions, the fact that everyone in the community has as good chance of anyone else asking that kind of action and that that action generates notice for it and therefore exposes that avenue for engagement to an audience that may not have been using Twitter before allows you to really grow that influence base in that community.

So I would say that you can start with the mathematical approach but then start thinking about within that statistically identified target group, how do you reach out and develop those relationships on Twitter that are most effectively going to drive the conversation moving forward.


MICAH SIFRY: Okay. That’s great. We’re at the half way point, so I’m going to pause now to note that if any of the folks that are listening would like to jump in with a question, please hit *6 on your phone and you should pop up in the queue here and I’ll be able to unmute you.

We’ll just pause for a second to let people be able to do that, if someone wants to ask a question.

Okay, we’ll keep that line open if you have a question feel free to pop in.

Let’s talk about advocacy in the sense that now we’re not talking about government officials or politicians you know, in their official capacity, but we’re talking about people who want to move with an issue. And that can be an elected or a challenger, but it’s more often than not, we see this done by issue activists and by organizations.

Are there differences in approach here? I mean, obviously I think your points about engaging you know, finding the conversation already underway, not acting like you know, you’re the first person to ever think of it.

But you know, can you give us an example of a really effective use in your mind of Twitter for political advocacy?

ADAM SHARP: Well I’ll actually give two and before that I think – when we get into conversations about advocacy and moving some ideas on Twitter. I often think back to that line in the 1980 Republican primaries when Ronald Regan said in the debate, sir, I paid for this microphone, because I think one of the differences we see now with tools like Twitter is that access to the microphone, if you will, doesn’t have to be paid. That you can organize and build a deep network of like-minded individuals that has every bit as much power as an establishment party or organization without necessarily spending a cent.

And on a large scale, I think you’ve seen this with the Tea Party movement’s using Twitter in 2010, I think you’ve seen it in the Arab Spring movements. I think in a more direct example of pure sort of lobbying advocacy here on the domestic front, I think on a national level you could look at the activity around opposition to the SOPA bill, for example in the last several weeks where millions of users have actually come out and been very outspoken on Twitter and really helped echo these issues and bring to the attention of their legislators and had a noticeable effect.

I think locally here in DC, there’s another movement starting to develop because of this start up car service called Uber that after having launched in other cities with some success, opened in DC to the consternation of the local taxi and limousine commission and now their customer base is somewhat organically picking up there and it’ll be interesting to see how that develops because it’s really in the last few days. So in local or national action, we’ve certainly seen examples.

I think you do need to look at it in two different spheres of influence, though: 1) is for let’s say a traditional advocacy tool which is that you are using Twitter to directly connect with the policy makers that impact that issue, so that is the very directed communication doing ad replies and engaging with members of Congress or legislature, whatever entity you’re trying to influence and having that strategy.

But then also the sphere of just building that grass roots community around the idea on the platform. So, it’s one tool but it is able to be used for both kinds of communication, the direct advocacy and the organization are merged into one space and I think that’s why they can each be leveraged to be so helpful for the other.


MICAH SIFRY: Let me be devil’s advocate for a second, though. You know, let me say I’m not running a big organization and I don’t have you know, unlimited staff. How do you know that the return on the investment in time that I’m going to say to my communication’s manager, all right, I want you to spend a half a day every day just Tweeting.

You know, how do you know that that really is the best use of somebody’s time as opposed to say you know, pitching the mainstream media or getting the executive director on a local radio show? What – you know, how do you convince the boss that the return on investment in a daily sort of presence on Twitter is really valuable?

ADAM SHARP: Well I think the nature of advocacy as with anything is that 90 percent of the effort really takes place before you get to that critical moment. If you are a sole organization and you are not engaged on any of these issues before and you have not built a community of users and followers on Twitter that you engage with regularly and so on, it can be very challenging to then just jump in out of the blue and think that you can kick off a campaign in the afternoon.

Though it’s been known to happen, it’s just more the exception than the rule. So, I think that the more effective approach isn’t oh, this bill is moving on the Hill so today take half the day and get on Twitter and have that be the first gambit because that will rarely be successful.

I think what is more successful is when you have overtime, use the Twitter account to develop a constituency where there’s a community on Twitter that looks to you as a credible source of information on the topic area that interests them, and a compelling foundation for conversation with other like-minded individuals so that you are not saying, take the next half day and just go Tweeting. It might just be one or two Tweets because that is enough to get the snow ball rolling of the community you’ve developed.

So, I think I would (inaudible) at the premise somewhat in that if the first conversation you have on Twitter is when you are at that critical juncture, you may have already lost the battle unless it is something so compelling that your Tweets coming out into that vacuum gain tremendous influence.

Let’s suffice to say it is not a silo on its own, it is a coordinated communications strategy. I don’t think it is going on Twitter or going on the local radio, I think it’s going on the local radio, motivating people to action and then providing Twitter as an avenue through which those motivated individuals can engage with you, connect with you and join the band wagon.

MICAH SIFRY: Just to stay on the point, I’m not suggesting somebody sort of go from zero to 60 but I mean doesn’t effective use of Twitter kind of require somebody, whether it’s the principal in the organization or whoever’s in charge of communications, keeping a steady eye on that channel? That because it’s real time feedback, if you will, that you know, lots of people are paying attention and then if your organization is being mentioned in a negative way and you’re not on top of it – I mean I think a real plus is clearly a great way to sort of get a very immediate pulse, if you will, on whatever issue you know, that may be of concern.

But it also means that you have to be ready for rapid response, no?


ADAM SHARP: Oh, absolutely. And I think that that isn’t necessarily a Twitter best practice, I think that is a communications best practice. You know, I don’t think even before Twitter that you’d have a press secretary who’d be worth their salt if they came in in the morning and said, you know, we’re really busy so we’re only going to pay attention to what is said about us on television, but not what’s said about us in the newspaper.

I think that news consumers are getting information through a wide variety of channels and I think it’s wise communication strategy to be paying attention to all of them and that’s not just Twitter, that’s traditional media, it’s Facebook, it’s Google, it’s Tumbler, it’s all these other streams and I think there’s an increasing number of third party tools that help with services that help with that.

But also I think that there’s something to be said for not viewing these things as independent silos and I think a lot of organizations get overwhelmed by the work load or perceived work load of managing a Twitter account because it is seen as this stand alone silo that we need a social media director and they’re just going to sit there and they’re just going to be the Twitter person every day for the whole organization rather than trying to build a culture in the organization of being attuned to this.

I know (inaudible) for example that of all the legislative aids in the office sit with Tweet deck open on their desks, monitoring the issues they’re responsible for and when something comes up there that they think intersects with what the Senator’s interested in in that policy then that’s what they flag for the communications team. And that by distributing this and making a part of what would be that person’s regular information consumption anyway, they’re able to distribute the load in such a way that the organization is investing in aggregate a lot of attention, but it is distributed in such a way that it’s negligible in any one individual and doesn’t necessarily result in having to hire a dedicated head count anymore than you would say, okay, we now have cell phones so Dave, you’re going to be the cell phone director. And no one else in the office should use cell phones.

MICAH SIFRY: We have a question coming in. Go ahead and identify yourself if you would and ask your question.

PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah, it’s merely an observation. My name is Marcel (inaudible) I’m actually calling from Brazil and I’m interested in learning a little bit more about the political use of the tweeter that’s on the call and I was wondering if there’s anything that you would say that most important.

I know that you mentioned that the division – like among the staff is something interesting to have, but (inaudible) Tweets or something like that are a measure of your effectiveness of a campaign or something.

MICAH SIFRY: What are good measures of effectiveness and impact – thank you for your question.

ADAM SHARP: Thank you for the question, Marcel. I think engagement is certainly a major measure because I think that follower count is probably one that is a little over appreciated if you will because you’ll see very often that the most influential accounts on Twitter are not necessarily the ones with the highest following. They’re the ones with the most compelling content because if you look – even Lady Gaga who I think last time I checked was the most followed account on Twitter. Even she is followed by only about one in 10 active accounts if you do the math.


And so even being the absolute No. 1 most followed person on the platform still isn’t getting you to that massive global reach whereas you have people with significantly fewer followers that are able to reach an even bigger audience simply because their content was compelling and so it got re-Tweeted and referenced.

To give you a great example, a few years ago when the U. S. Airways plane landed on the Hudson River in New York, someone took a picture with a cell phone and Tweeted it out and within an hour that image was on pretty much every cable news network in the U. S., it was on front pages of newspapers across the country the next day. And the person who took that picture only had about 30 or so followers at the time. But –

MICAH SIFRY: (Inaudible) because –

ADAM SHARP: (Overlapping remarks) Tweets are what – and scale the message so then you have to look at well how do you compel that? How do you convert someone from a passive follower to an engaged echo chamber for your message? And that I think is an important question not just in Twitter but in any communications capacity.

I think when someone comes to an event and is just curious about your campaign, how you take the person who comes in the door as a passive listener and have them leave as an active advocate. And on Twitter the active path to that are having compelling information, engaging with users so it’s not just a broadcast medium but about back and forth, being yourself and not just having it be a very regimented sort of press releases because these are things that will create value in the account and build a community of people who want to help you advance your message and fan out that content.

MICAH SIFRY: Thank you very much. By the way, do you have a number for Brazil like of users like you have for the States?

ADAM SHARP: No, we don’t do – except for the 30 percent of the States, 70 percent worldwide, we do not do country by country numbers after that. What I can tell you though, is that Brazil is one of our most active markets. I mean after the U. S., if we were to round up to the top five most active markets for the U. S., you’d see the U.K., Japan, Brazil and Indonesia there. The exact order can change from time to time.

MICAH SIFRY: (Overlapping remarks) thank you very much.

ADAM SHARP: And that’s by and large I should mention of I think very heavy mobile adoption in Brazil. We generally see globally that countries with greater mobile penetration also have higher Twitter adoption.

MICAH SIFRY: Right. Can you actually – that’s a topic of a lot of interest to me. I wonder if you could shed some more light on this.

There have been a number of studies that suggest African Americans in the United States are using Twitter at a much greater rate than their proportionate population, as much as twice as much. And I wonder if you can offer some insight into what is going on? What do you know about what that means? And does that imply in any way for somebody who’s thinking about using Twitter or already using Twitter as an advocacy platform, a different sensitivity or opportunities or you know, what does it mean and what does it mean in particular for political advocacy?

ADAM SHARP: Well I think I’ve definitely seen reports – you talk I think (sounds like: PEW) in particular had one last year, I think the same (inaudible) study had it earlier that not only were African Americans and seniors the fastest growing groups of our user base, but particularly in the African American community, Twitter adoption was significantly higher than in the general population.

You know, we estimated – I think the PEW number was 9 percent of all population, I think it was the high teens among African Americans.


I think there are a few things in play there; a big one is the mobile adoption. Twitter as our funder Jack Dorsey often says degrades beautifully. It is designed to be able to work on any platform and part of that is because it was sort of designed the opposite direction of a lot of web services. It was crafted to be a mobile service and then we figured out how to do a website and everything else around that as opposed to starting a website and then trying to figure out the mobile strategy.

In fact, the reason Tweets are 140 characters is specifically because of that mobile approach. The international standard for SMS type messaging is 160 characters, so we reserved some for the user name and then 140 for the actual content of the message. And part of that was if you say 15 characters for the user name and then a few other characters for doing (inaudible) symbols and so forth gets you to the 160.

That is probably the driving cause of Twitter adoption generally being higher in communities where you do not have – higher than other services I should say – in communities that might not have broadband access or computers in the home. I think it’s a big driver of our growth in the developing world because anyone with a cell phone and text messaging can be a full and active participant in Twitter without having access to a physical computer or a smart phone or a broad band connection or anything like that.

I think I should probably mention here for example in the U.S., we had a short code which is 40404, which is if you were to text follow and the user name, so follow (space) Adam S to 40404, you would start getting my Tweets as text messages. Never have to create a Twitter account, never have to touch a computer.

If you did associate your mobile number with a Twitter account, you could then use text messaging to send Tweets, reply to Tweets, read Tweets, follow and un-follow and have a full and complete user experience on just about any mobile phone sold today. Smart phones are still the minority, but text messaging has pretty much reached saturation.

Finally I think specific to the African American community, I think there may also be some additional factors of play there in terms of what sort of drives adoption, I think in the early days of Twitter in the music industry for example, I think we saw much more rapid growth in the hip hop community, R&B community and so on in actively tweeting and using that as a platform to engage the fans. I think pop and rock came a little later and that may also have an impact there, but I think mobile is still the principle driver of that effect.

MICAH SIFRY: Very interesting. We have a call coming in here from – looks like someone in D.C. Go ahead, tell us your name and ask your question.

PARTICPANT 2: High, thanks, can you hear me? Hi, it’s Loralei Kelly, thank you. Thanks Adam, thanks for this.

I have a question about mobile technology and Tweeting. In the countries that are undergoing dramatic transitions right now, particularly the uprisings or any (inaudible) environment, I’m working with a group of global women peace builders and we’re looking at ways that women have moved beyond sort of campaigning with technology and more into governing, like how can they actually be involved and at the table.

The institutions are being built and you’ve already said that the internet and what technology allows people to do is act without permission and I think the other face of that for women at least is to allow women to be influential without being present physically, which is really important in some of these environments where lots of cultural and physical safety reasons.

And I’m just wondering, do you have a couple sort of new governing entities that are individuals that are doing this really well? Is anybody keeping track of that? How this mobile track is moving from campaigning into actually governing?

ADAM SHARP: Yeah, I think that you’re definitely seeing some of this. I think that you saw in Egypt as they started forming a new government using some of these tools more to open up process and trying to incorporate more voices.

I think in terms of women in particular and I think (inaudible) change, a few months ago you saw a movement on Twitter around the issue of women being permitted to drive in several Arab countries, which was a major movement on Twitter and actually I think it was in Saudi Arabia motivated one of the princesses in the Royal Family to get active on Twitter and use that to bring pressure on the Royal Family to take action.

So, I think you’re absolutely right on that anonymity certainly supports that, but it is very much a moving target and I think it’s only been recently that we have probably seen the adoption rates getting high enough where there’s large enough communities in a lot of these countries to give a foundation for that.

The U. S., as I’ve said, is only 30 percent but it is still the largest market so when you get down to smaller countries, you do get to smaller user bases. I think we probably just crossed or are in the process of crossing essentially that tipping point of having enough voices to start something just about anywhere and that’s been motivated a lot by the Arab Spring, which has given a lot of hope to a lot of these movements on Twitter.

So, I think that the examples so far are very much just very individual case studies that had a lot of other things going right in them. I don’t think Twitter is the magic dust that automatically use Twitter and you have successful effort, but it increasingly has become a part of that especially in developing worlds where mobile networks are often the first things to be restored and invested in where you have the world bank with its (inaudible) own program, for example trying to get mobile devices into more hands and so on.

So, I think it’s still a little bit more of a consistent story of opportunity than a long list of successes, though there are certainly a few.

MICAH SIFRY: Great, I would just add to that that my impression is that in a number of cases where Twitter is a short cut or a life line, you know I’m thinking of Mona (sounds like: Al Tahowi’s) experience recently in Egypt where as she was being arrested by the Interior Ministry, she did manage to get one Tweet out and that helped people rapidly mobilize on her behalf.

It helped of course that she had already a significant following online, so it wasn’t 30 people following her, she probably had, I don’t know, 10,000 people or more, so that Tweet was quickly noticed.

But that – you know, lots of companies today seem to be responding faster to complaints about them when they appear on twitter than when they are just phoned in or you know, you use their normal channels.

So, it may not be a permanent feature of our times, but at the moment Twitter seems to often get your attention faster, which can be a very useful thing. I don’t know how that changes governance yet, but I think Lorelai, that it’s very early and we should just – keep – listening in on these calls and reading our coverage on Tech President and coming to our conferences and everybody else, we’re all sifting the same evidence base, looking for the patterns.

Great question and thank you and I should say thank you to Adam, we’ve actually come to the end of our call. It’s been a really interesting conversation, very, very helpful in terms of getting a lot of what you need to know about how to use Twitter effectively and smartly for advocacy.

So, we have to thank Adam Sharp who is Manager for Government and Politics at Twitter, based in Washington D.C. Thank you.

You might also like the following PDM Events

Civic Hall
Personal Democracy Media presents Civic Hall, a one-of-a-kind community center for the world’s civic innovators. Located in the heart of New York City, Civic Hall is your home for civic tech.


Sign up for email updates from Personal Democracy Media and Civic Hall.