Friday, January 22, 2010

I'm dreading the first Twitter election

When Abraham Lincoln was running for the American presidency in 1858 he had a series of debates with his Democratic opponent. He would speak for an hour, the opponent would respond for ninety minutes and then Lincoln would have another half an hour. Obviously the electors of those days hadn't had their attention-spans killed by television but there was more to it than that. The time they took to explore the issues facing the Union at the time was a token of the seriousness with which they took the issue's complexities. This may have been handed down to generations of schoolchildren as "all about the slaves" but that wasn't how the debate was framed at the time.

I've been thinking about this as the opening shots are fired in what is clearly going to be the first Twitter election, where any issue that can't be boiled down to 140 characters won't play. 140 characters is enough room for a slogan or a meretricious appeal; it's not enough to say anything more useful. In that sense Stalin would have loved it. Lincoln not so much.


  1. Where all the people 1860's listening all the time I imagine a fair few drifted in and out , went for a drink , talked to their friends and isn't lincoln most famous for a short speech?
    Not defending twitter per se not sure really long speeches are also a good thing, you've been to a school prize day or a church sermon I'm sure.

  2. The famous 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, which I'm guessing you're referring to, were part of his run for the Illinois Senate seat - he didn't run for President until 1860.

    Also, Lincoln would have been much better than Stalin on Twitter. At 270-ish words (depending on the draft you use) the Gettysburg Address would be much easier to break into 140 characters blocks than Stalin's interminable speeches to the Soviet Central Committee.

  3. I totally take your point, but I do think it pays to be able to frame your argument succintly and memorably.

    For instance, healthcare reform in the US seems all but dead. Look at the Twitter-friendly slogans on the opponents. Death panels. Government take over your health. Taking care away from Grandma. All meretricious, to be sure, but all instantly memorably and instantly understandable. What did the Dems have? Nothing. Big mistake.

    Or how about George W Bush's War on Terror? Or Mission Accomplished? Or Axis of Evil? Certainly we can agree that those terms where all applied misguidedly, to put it mildy. But they all had politcal value.

    I guess I'm just saying that it pays to be sure your policy or initiative can be summed up forcefully otherwise your opponents' words are gonna get all the attention.

  4. My first inclination was to agree heartily. But it is indeed hard to forget Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address. Somehow I think Twitter would have been his friend.

    As for Stalin, I'm not so sure -- especially if net neutrality were in place.

    All that aside, I'm not looking forward to a twitter election. While Lincoln's ability to be eloquent and succinct was indicative of his brilliance, that AIN'T necessarily true of others as we're learning so painfully in America.

  5. Increasingly, I think politics as played out in the media is about the fight for the slogans. Everyone wants to be the 'party of education' or whatever and, while they all acknowledge that means different things to each of them, it's ownership of the slogan that seems to matter.

  6. Well, I've been to lots of speech days but none of them were addressed by Abraham Lincoln. The Gettysburg Address, which wouldn't fit in ten tweets, is intellectually beyond all contemporary politicians and their speechwriters because it's a series of sophisticated sentences that go together to build a thought that people are still mulling over today. And it wouldn't survive the first rehearsal today because it hasn't got any applause triggers in it.

  7. I agree with your assessment of the Gettysburg Address, and yes, it's a shame media doesn't facilitate that kind of brilliance.

    I guess I just want to believe Lincoln was brilliant enough he could have adapted to the current media. Hell, I hope someone today is that brilliant since it doesn't appear to be going away.

  8. Benjamin Disraeli springs to mind actually, as a brilliant speechmaker who remains best known for his acid one-liners. Most of which came during epic speeches- but would fit neatly into a 140 character tweet.

  9. Twitter may influence the media reporting in this election but it won't influence the vast majority of the voters who probably haven't got their heads around Facebook yet never mind Twitter. Most Twitterites will find it boring, and while they may be able to mobilise enough support to change the outcome of the irrelevant Christmas No.1 they will not impact one iota on the ouctome of the election.

  10. The most annoying thing about a twitter election will be the #preachingtotheconverted element of it, where groups of like-minded individuals who follow each other simply reinforce their beliefs.

    Twitter's not really set up for debate -- by the time you've written 'I see your point but...' or any other phrase to make a counterpoint seem less hostile you're virtually out of characters -- so you either agree or ignore, and it does tend to encourage smug self-righteousness.

    The endless retweeting of the 'fuck off back where you came from' grafitti on a David Cameron poster in Hackney is a good example, and I don't know how many more times I need to see a stream of tweets to let me know that the Daily Mail is by and large pretty ghastly.