You can tell it’s getting close to an election because politicians are suddenly getting on Twitter.

Andrew Robb, Chris Bowen and Maxine McKew have all joined Twitter over the last week or so. The ALP has set up an “authorised” “Phoney Tony” account a while back, to meet the needs of the critically undeserved market for people who want unfunny jokes about the Leader of the Opposition. Michael “People’s Poet” Johnson is enthusiastically tweeting about his commitment to democracy and the need to break down the power of the major parties.

And on the weekend that indefatigable early adopter Malcolm Turnbull, the MP for Digital Natives, released his own iPhone app, putting him way ahead of any other Australian politician, although sadly he was well-beaten as the first politician to have their own app. Now-former British MP Derek Wyatt had one in February.

Bet he never had a dog blog though.

It’s now well-established that some politicians use Twitter effectively and some — well, most, do not. Some recognise the opportunity to interact with voters and communicate with overlapping communities of interest. Others see it merely as just another medium for pumping out their message and distributing their press releases.

Put another way, that’s the media’s favoured political dichotomy of authenticity v spin.

And as you know, an industry that relies on PR for more than half its stories is in a strong position to accuse anyone else of spin.

But that distracts from a simpler reality: politicians as a breed not merely don’t “get” Twitter, or other social media, they don’t “get” new media of any kind. Sticking videos on Youtube and offering a Facebook site or a homepage — tasks usually delegated to younger, less Luddite advisers — might provide a new media veneer to campaigns but our politicians remain defiantly analog.

Free-to-air TV is their preferred medium. That’s the medium that still enables them to reach mass audiences, or at least as mass as any media can deliver these days, which is not anywhere near as much as it used to be.

Australian politicians are still in the mass media business as much as their predecessors were because we have compulsory voting. This is a key difference between how our politicians go about campaigning and how their counterparts go about it in other western democracies, few of which share our distasteful habit of compelling people to vote with the threat of imprisonment.

In such countries, the sheer act of getting out the vote — of inspiring voters to go out and cast a ballot, and organising the logistics to facilitate it — shapes campaign strategies and media usage. Last year I spoke to US progressive politics veteran Jeff Blodgett, who was Obama’s Minnesota campaign director. He explained that that campaign — widely perceived as having been the most “new media” yet — used social media not merely as a fund-raising source (as Howard Dean had in 2004) but as a tool to encourage people to volunteer and link up with like-minded people in their communities, establishing on-the-ground networks that would prove valuable during the campaign and on election day.

Social media are perfect for this process, which goes beyond a dialogue between candidate and supporters and into creating entirely new communities of interest that become a core part of the real-world campaign.

While Kevin07 had pretensions to energizing voters, this sort of community connectedness is barely on the To Do list of the major parties here, which can rely on the Electoral Commission driving 90+% of voters to the polls regardless of their levels of enthusiasm. The need to use tools that deliver Obama-style personalised outreach, and facilitate connectedness, just isn’t the same.

A repeat complaint about politicians’ use of social media — and I should know because I’ve made it myself — is that they fail to understand that it should be about a conversation between themselves and voters, that it should be as much about the views of electors as about their own views.

But the prosaic reality is that this might be practicable when the number of users seeking genuine interaction is relatively small, but we passed that point long ago. Responding to even a fraction of the communication available via social media, on top of that coming through via email and dead-tree correspondence, is well beyond the resources of most Ministers, let alone your average MP.

The dream of digital democracy, in which our political representatives are wired up to their communities, will founder on the basic problem that there is one of Them, and hundreds of thousands of Us.

The best we can hope for is that some politicians, by combination of personal inclination, genuine enthusiasm and resourcing, will participate in what I call the sort of intellectual “common room” of Australian political tweeting. It’s not a single space or community but more a collection of separate but connected groups created by the participation of politicians, commentators, journalists, academics and some current and former staffers.

It’s by no means a personalised interaction, more like the occasional contribution to an ongoing political/public affairs conversation, but it might be the best our hard-working (and that’s not sarcasm) politicians can manage.

More on this tomorrow.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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