Among the 1,200 tweets with the #penrithdebate tag, the most retweeted comment of the day came not from a politician but from a journalist who has long been familiar with the medium: Joe Hildebrand. Hildebrand used the conventions of his craft to turn the debate into an ironic news headline “EXCLUSIVE: TWITTER DEBATE CONFUSED, NONSENSICAL AND UNPRODUCTIVE; PERFECT REPRESENTATION OF NSW POLITICS” At least 41 others liked Hildebrand’s contribution enough to send it on to their followers too (photo: ABC)
The joke was funny because it used the metaphor of the Twitter debate standing in for the entire panoply of governance in NSW. But if true, Hildebrand as a Sydney based News Limited reporter, is part of the problem. As one observer noted, “Twitter is too short, and with a lot of people tweeting to participate in the debate means that information just flies by without being properly looked and picked apart”. Yet journalists and other truth finders can easily pick through the bones of the debate after the fact.
The Penrith Debate was an exchange of ideas between NSW three political leaders using Twitter as the communication channel for 30 minutes ahead of a state by-election in Penrith on the weekend. Under the moderation of TV journalist Kevin Wilde, the leaders Premier Kristina Keneally, the Liberals' Barry O’Farrell and the Greens' Lee Rhiannon would use the 140-character format to debate ideas, issues and policies. Keneally made grandiose claims about the possibilities: “Twitter flattens democratic debate. Enlivens democracy. A great tool for discussion, info exchange.”
All of this is true after a fashion, but Twitter does not make for great theatre. Because of the tool’s shortcomings with multi-pronged conversation, the debate became more geek gimmickry than any flush of oratory. Tech and social commentator Stilgherrian picked up on this calling it “confusing and pointless” and said Twitter was “completely the wrong medium for a debate.” Stilgherrian made the point that following the three Twitter streams was almost like watching three TV stations. Yet he also said a filtered stream of the hashtag limited to the participants was available on the day.
Twitter may be flawed but we forget it is just one piece of the communication puzzle. Keneally used her iphone to make her Tweets while Rhiannon used Tweetdeck. Others used a bewildering array of tools that sit on top of Twitter to make their points. The stream is being tamed as people find uses for the vast amount of data it consumes. And the debate, though badly executed, contained the germ of an old and timeless ideal: public accountability.
Among the masters of public accountability are the Dutch and they held several Twitter debates a couple of weeks ago in the lead-up to national elections. The Netherlands went further than NSW with three party leaders, two ministers and three other MPs taking part. The commentary from Dutch-based John Tyler at HagueGuy showed there was a massive audience for this kind of interaction regardless of how chaotic the rapid fire exchanges got. While it was easy to get confused, the debates have added a vast amount of information for the likes of the HagueGuy and Hildebrand to work with when critiquing politicians.
It is too easy to overlook just how exciting this kind of interactivity is. Working at its best, the Twitterati operates like synapses, a hivemind that is capable of massive thought and concerted action despite its 140 character limits, inherent anarchy, spamming, non sequiturs and juvenile humour. The creative boundary of briefness means complex words and sentences are pared down to their absolute essentials and often chiselled into remarkably dense thought. Admittedly we didn't see much of that today but there will be other opportunities.
More of these debates will be conducted in the trust economy of social media. Politicians will have to learn a new skill: how to become adept at ceding control. Twitter debates (or whatever social media format might follow) won’t decide the election, but with the right tools and the right filters, they can add to the general wellbeing of the body politic by getting tight messages out to a wide and engaged audience.
Greens participant Lee Rhiannon was in no doubt the debate was a success. “There would have been more people following this debate on line than would fit into many local town halls,” she wrote. “I am not saying they should replace public meetings but there is a place for online debates in the political landscape and we should encourage its development.”
While the debate format suited the Greens as it did not exclude them, Rhiannon is right – we should encourage their development. But we should not get too carried away; Rhiannon and the rest did what politicians do in any other debate on any other media. They spoke to their own themes and ignored pointed replies. It is politics, after all. It is up to us to go through the entrails to make sense of it.