Since 2008, social media has remained a focus in politics. Four years ago, President Barack Obama proved that its power could be harnessed successfully in campaigning. Following that election, many politicians jumped onto Twitter to share their thoughts and connect with voters, with varying degrees of strategy and success.
But the potential of social media goes far beyond just campaigning, town halls, and chats using hashtags. Case in point: Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
With well over 1 million followers and more than 15,000 tweets under his belt, Booker is a tweeting fiend. In the last seven hours, Booker has tweeted about veterans and homelessness, affordable housing, and quoted Harriet Tubman — to name just three.
You may recognize Booker’s name from when he rescued a woman from a burning building, or perhaps you have watched one of his videos posted to YouTube. More likely, you may have seen some of the fallout from his appearance on Meet the Press just over a week ago.
Twitter isn’t a magic wand: Booker’s communications director, Anna Torres, announced her resignation today, which many believe was influenced by the the mayor’s Meet the Press comments and the damage control. But while Twitter cannot be expected to perform perfect spin, it can be a useful tool for reaching the voting public.
For years, politicians at all levels have had to interact with and respond to requests by their constituents, usually in person or by mail (electronic or paper). Twitter might just offer a real time option for Twitter users to contact their representatives at the state, regional, and national level.
I decided to follow Booker on Twitter to see if he held up to his reputation.
Since following him, I’ve found it interesting how Booker uses the social media channel to fulfill his job duties as mayor and to have a dialogue with the public. Here is an example where Booker actually dispenses his cell phone number as a result of a Tweet expressing frustration about a slow police dispatch:
I sent u my cell #. Please reach out asap RT @frenchywomack: I was in a car accident & waiting for over an hour for the police to arrive.
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) May 17, 2012
The message below started with his response to a tweet complaining about long grass in the local park. After checking with someone at the city, he said it would be taken care of the next day. Then he tweeted out a picture later someone took of the cut grass.
Most of his tweets involve queries and responses to posts from other twitter users. He is especially connected to his constituents. Along with more typical duties, Booker has also voiced his support for the New Jersey Devils (now playing in the Stanley Cup Finals) and for Tom Barrett in Wisconsin.
His feed isn’t all politics either. I’ve also learned that Booker has been a vegetarian for 20 years, loves Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and enjoys meditating, though he’s fallen out of the habit lately.
With 100 million users on Twitter and the simple interface of the network, Booker is showing that it can be an ideal place for politicians to interact with people directly.
Booker isn’t the only politician exploring how to use Twitter on the job. A recent article studied how Chicago politicians were using the site. The study found that there was steady back and forth between elected officials active on Twitter and their followers.
But it’s important to keep in mind that Twitter’s reach is still limited to certain groups. Not everyone uses the channel, uses it often, or knows how to use it. It’s just one tool in the communications toolkit and at 140 characters or less, not a very good tool for tackling big problems.
Booker is proving that it can however be one useful tool in reaching out to and helping your constituents –with or without a communications director. But I will say this: his Twitter activity does sometimes leave me craving ice cream and feeling like a bit of slacker for not having saved a life recently.
This post was produced in partnership with UW Election Eye 2012.