Much of the popular discourse about Twitter is focused on its globalizing potential. We frequently hear how, say, Twitter helped topple decades-long dictatorships during the Arab Spring last year. The medium, we’re told, has the capacity to connect people over great distances, creating and fostering communities across borders. Lost in this discussion is the site’s potential to localize, and how it can be used by campaigns to connect people within communities.
A significant portion of a Twitter user’s feed is made up of people living in the same city, often inhabiting the same social network, according to a recent paper in Social Networks. What insight can campaigns pull from this research? Here are three things to think about:
1. Cluster-to-cluster communication. Yuri Takhteyev, the Twitter researcher, notes how the viral Kony 2012 video spread from regional cluster to regional cluster. A cluster of users learned about it around the same time by sharing the message with one another, leading it to be discovered by someone with a non-local tie to that cluster and then shared beyond.
This functionality of the medium is something political campaigns can tap into. When Twitter followers have a significant number of local ties within their feed, it opens up a new potential outlet of message dissemination. That said, the local ties in Twitter feeds might also have implications for larger campaigns. One of the implications for state and national campaigns is that non-local ties may have the potential to stand out in a user’s feed. The novelty of a new message from a non-local source gives it greater impact.
“Weak ties, in a certain sense, can actually be very important because ... they let you bring in information from outside your dense network,” Takhteyev says. This can mean opportunities and pitfalls for larger campaigns because there’s no such thing as local communication anymore. Candidates know, while a message may play well with one audience, it might not go over well with an audience in another region.
The pitfall created by regional clusters on Twitter is that just because that second audience is not present does not mean they won’t have access to what you are saying.
2. Twitter can become an alternative news source. Takhteyev says our Twitter habits often follow our news consumption habits in that our news sources tend to be local. In the same way that consumers seek out local news sources, they’ll also connect to local Twitter users for the same reasons.
“To some extent [Twitter] also, for many people, comes as an alternative to media ... A way of getting news,” Takhteyev says.
A local campaign ignored by the media can tap into Twitter as one way to connect within its regional cluster. Larger campaigns think of Twitter as a way to go around the news media and speak directly to their supporters.
3. Twitter allows bi-directionality. As Kellen Giuda noted in a recent post, Twitter is not an old, uni-directional medium of communication. Takhteyev makes a similar point.
“Twitter allows a certain bi-directionality of communication, which is possible even in cases when you're not actually technically following one another,” he says.
Where Facebook requires that you have some tie to another user in order to interact with him or her, Twitter allows campaigns to see and respond to things being said about them even by those users with whom they have no connection. Given the potential for local cluster communication, cluster-to-cluster communication, and the uses of Twitter as an alternative news source, campaigns need to be on the lookout for what is being said about their candidates and responding accordingly.
Robert Spicer is a doctoral candidate in media studies in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University. He is also an assistant professor of communication at DeSales University in Allentown, PA.