From the heady, shaky days of Howard Dean to the triumphant ascent of Pres. Barack Obama, there’s no question that the web is a vital tool for organizing and fundraising. Social networks have turned the grassroots into netroots. If you’re running for office today, you need to have “presence.” You better be on Facebook. And you better be on Twitter.
Yes, politicians love Twitter. Almost every U.S. congressperson has an account, and state, county, and local government officials are also well represented. And why not? It’s a great, simple tool to share information… and hopefully to get feedback as well. Heck, Martha Stewart is on Twitter. There’s no denying its appeal and (potential) value.
For those of us who’ve been immersed in this and other online communities for years, it’s fascinating to watch as various groups discover the online conversation and join in. The marketers, the Realtors, the teachers… and now, I’ve been happily finding and following Hawaii politicians as they join the Twitter party.
In late March, Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hanneman’s Twitter account popped up on my radar. His account was apparently created on March 12, but it was only after some Hanneman headlines were posted (IN ALL CAPS) that he turned up in a Twitter search.
What followed was fairly common for anyone just getting started on the service. Messages switched to first pers0n (“I am seeking partners to prevent domestic abuse.”), then included news briefs with links (“Extended to 4/20 application deadline for Summer Youth Employment Program.“). As other Twitter users found him, they followed him. And in three weeks, the account gained a modest but respectable 40 followers.
I thought it was an earnest start.
I admit, though, that I was dismayed to see that @MufiHannemann wasn’t following anyone else (besides city CIO Gordon Bruce). While no one can be expected to follow back every person who follows them, Hannemann’s ratio suggested there was only interest in one-way broadcasts. But I figured he (or his team) would eventually learn the ropes and slowly open up the feedback channel. Indeed, his first public reply to another user was posted three days ago, to local tech whiz Peter Kay.
But something else happened this week. After naturally, organically picking up about 40 followers in his first three or so weeks on Twitter, I was astonished to see that @MufiHannemann now had over 28,000 followers.
That’s beyond amazing… it’s almost ridiculous. His audience grew by 700 percent in less than a week, on an account that’s posted a total of 28 updates. That’s more followers than Donnie Wahlberg, CNN’s Don Lemon, even NASA. Even better, he’s still only following Bruce. If 1:41 was lopsided, 1:28,000 is ridiculous.
How’d he do it? Well, only Hannemann and his consultants know for sure. It may have been through his sheer political might, his natural charisma, or his velvety singing voice. My first guess was a “followbot” — a service like Hummingbird, Tweetergetter, Tweet Penguin, or a dozen others out there designed to give you celebrity-sized followings for only $299 (or even free). I was almost sure of it after I scanned through several pages of @MufiHannemann’s 28,000 followers, and eventually gave up trying to find one single person from Hawaii.
Turns out my friend @Neenz had the answer: Mufi Hanneman’s account was given a spot in Twitter’s coveted “suggested users” list. A spot that Jason Calcanis famously offered $250,000 for. (Twitter insists the placements aren’t paid.) This means that thousands of new Twitter users around the world will, by default, automatically follow our dear mayor.
Sounds like quite a coup. But is it?
I’ve been on Twitter since November 2006. I consider myself a fairly obsessive user. In two and a half years, I’ve posted over 9,000 updates, and somehow gained a following of 4,695 users. (I also follow 4,454 people.) And I can definitely see how these numbers are compelling. I’ve quietly celebrated every arbitrary milestone, from my 1,000th follower to my 5,000th update. But ultimately, I’m more obsessed about getting the most out of Twitter. Building relationships, tracking trends, asking questions and getting answers. And frankly, you can have a wonderful Twitter experience with only 50 people in your network. Or even fewer.
Sure, having 28,000 users looks great. I expect to see it mentioned in a “Mufi 2.0” press release soon. But social networks aren’t just about the numbers, no matter what a “social media expert” tells you. Yes, reaching a thousand people is better than reaching ten. But these new tools are also about value. How valuable are 28,000 followers to a Hawaii politician if barely any of them live in Hawaii? And how valuable is a @MufiHannemann account to constituents and voters if it only follows a CIO and only posts periodic press releases?
In the interests of full disclosure, as I blogged earlier, I am among many local geeks who have given social media advice to U.S. Rep. (and Hawaii gubernatorial candidate) Neil Abercrombie. And Hannemmann may decide to run for governor himself. But trust me, I offer this advice to any candidate who wants to incorporate these new tools into their campaigns: just be real.
It’s about authenticity, accessibility, and engagement. Forget the numbers, be transparent and earnest, and above all, listen.