In the last month on Twitter Lt. Gov. John Fetterman agreed to officiate a wedding and has been publicly planning it with the couple, Gov. Tom Wolf’s crowd-sourced map of the best hotdog shops in the state is up to 147 locations, and the Pennsylvania Treasury let its feelings be known on Jeff Bezos’ “blasting his dumb rockets into the sun, so he can feel like a god.”
In addition to these buzz-generating tweets there is another — less visible — conversation happening between Pennsylvania elected officials and their constituents that largely is not happening elsewhere in the country.
I’ve spent the better part of the last year knee-deep in the Twitter accounts of U.S. governors as part of a larger research project. After reading thousands of tweets from across the U.S., I can tell you there’s something special happening in the world of Pennsylvania Twitter. There is a group of Pennsylvania politicians who are using Twitter to actively and earnestly engage in online conversations with constituents.
When Twitter first began to gain in popularity, it was often heralded as a great democratizer. By allowing direct and public lines of communication among users, proponents predicted that it would allow for a growth in decentralized citizen journalism and break down barriers between average citizens and those in positions of power.
However, that’s not exactly what happened. While examples of citizen journalism and direct engagement with politicians certainly exist, studies show that the average users on Twitter aren’t primarily producing content and putting their own thoughts out into the world. Instead, they are mostly retweeting content produced by other — predominantly high-profile — users.
Instead of the egalitarian conversation that Twitter was originally supposed to be, it is more often a place where average users simply act as an additional microphone amplifying the message of users with already-loud voices.
It’s common to talk about how social media is a game-changer in U.S. politics, from Barack Obama’s campaign and fund-raising operations to Donald Trump’s own unique take on the medium. However, when we stop to think about how most high-profile users such as Obama, Trump, and other politicians use Twitter, it is more often than not this amplifying model rather than one of actual engagement and conversation.
That is what makes what is happening in Pennsylvania so interesting. Sure, any politicians can hire a good digital communications team and give it free rein of their Twitter account, and some of these tweets are likely to be the product of just that — a smart social-media staffer with an eye toward building a politician’s personal brand.
But, that is not all this seems to be. Users can often tell when they are being “sold” something. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that Philadelphians largely lambasted then-Councilman Jim Kenney for doing just that. What makes the current batch of tweeters different is a genuine feeling of authenticity and engagement with their constituents. These users — even if they aren’t the politicians themselves but instead staff — are having dialogues on Twitter. They aren’t just tweeting at their followers, they are starting discussions and then continuing them in the replies. It is that continuation of the conversation that is unique.
Do an experiment: Go to any Twitter user’s profile, near the top of the page — right below where it lists the number of followers — there are four different views you can select to view a user’s timeline. The default is to just view their “Tweets,” but there is also an option to view their “Tweets & Replies.” For the majority of politicians’ accounts there is no difference between these two views, because they aren’t engaging in conversations. They are just using Twitter as a one-way platform. Now, do the same thing with accounts like @PATreasury, @JohnFetterman, or State Rep @RepInnamorato. When you view these accounts’ “Tweets & Replies,” you see a substantial number of replies that represent engagement with other users. This is where you see the conversations.
Mayor Kenney is out on Twitter engaging in a conversation about gentrification and public parks with constituents. State Rep. Summer Lee is having a dialogue with constituents about anti-blackness. Lt. Gov. Fetterman is stepping in to offer advice to constituents on navigating medical marijuana dispensaries for an elderly parent. And, the Treasury is having a conversation with multiple individuals about the tiny home movement and declining standards of living.
One of the strongest indicators that these interactions represent authentic outreach is how little attention they get. Sure these tweets are public, but if this type of engagement is part of a strategic marketing campaign designed to get more clicks, then they should all fire their communications teams. The above tweets got 12, 1, 0, and 5 likes, respectively, and yet these politicians keep engaging with their constituents in this way.
Engagement like this is about more than just earning “likes” and credit for being a cool/hip/woke politician. This is about building a space for citizens to interact with their elected officials. Not only because engaging with one another makes citizens better, but also because it makes politicians better. This is about building trust and transparency, engagement, and participation. And, from the tweets of the Pennsylvania Treasury, “[we] will break this off into bite-size chunks. But you need to know what’s happening in your economy. You need to know what’s happening in your government. … It’s part of our job.”