@StateSenator, please vote yes! #copolitics #coleg
Istarted my career in politics as a legislative aide in the Colorado House of Representatives ten years ago. I was underpaid and overworked, but I got to walk into the Capitol every day, and after an airport-style security check, walk up six flights of stairs to my representative’s office. I became very good at putting together tallies of vote requests, of constituent e-mails, calls, and letters, getting yelled at on the phone, and making coffee.
I spent the day helping real people navigate their state government to access the information and services they paid for with their tax dollars, helping them tell their elected officials how they felt on a particular bill or issue, and making the greatest coffee possible for lawmakers who each represented 1/65th of the entire population of the state of Colorado.
I was passionate about my menial work, but found whittling down
constituent e-mails to tallies and cutting down calls to a summary sentence, fell short in a country based on representative democracy.
Given the low wage of a lowly legislative aide, I needed another job for additional income. I was fortunate enough to get a job writing for a startup in Boulder that was working on a sort of pre-Spotify music app, which sadly never got off the ground. At this side gig, I saw my very first iPhone in person, turned a Nintendo Wii controller into a musical instrument, and heard early stories about this “microblogging platform” called Twitter.
I thought “Twitter” was a very stupid name for a microblogging platform, personally, and I didn’t really see how you could get any real information across in 140 characters.
History has proven the latter to be an incorrect assessment, though I still don’t love the name.
Ten years ago there wasn’t a very good way for constituents to reach their elected officials directly in real time, at least for people who didn’t have time off during the week to go visit them at the capitol. Interaction between constituent and elected official was generally asynchronous. Representatives and senators sent e-mail newsletters and held town hall meetings and constituents sent e-mails, made phone calls, and even sent the occasional letter or postcard to 200 East Colfax Avenue. So there were filters and gatekeepers, both human and technological between elected officials and the people they represented.
The House Democratic press office was always pushing the members and aides to get on Twitter, Facebook, come up with “social media plans,” and post content on their websites. The early attempts at utilizing social media as a constituent communications and services tool were generally unsuccessful. “Getting a hot dog with Jimmy!” “It’s really cold today, and it’s May, I thought winter was over!”
“A lot of Texas license plates driving around Denver today.”
And that’s how it went for quite a while; at least as far as social media and the state capitol were concerned. Most members of the legislature didn’t have smartphones, didn’t care to get one, and were perfectly happy using existing traditional media and correspondence channels to communicate with the people in their districts.
In 2008, the organization I now work for, ProgressNow Colorado, decided that it would be neat to have a centralized location for the political discussion in Colorado on Twitter. A place where constituents and lawmakers, reporters and activists could engage one another in 140 character debates about issues as they were developing in the state capitol and around the Democratic National Convention, which was in Denver that year.
Enter the #copolitics, and later, the #coleg hashtags, which we helped organize.
Within a few election cycles, Twitter had matured as a place for lawmakers, lobbyists, reporters, policy wonks and activists to quickly publish and interact with each other’s opinions in real time. Lawmakers signed up for Twitter in droves, smartphones were nearly universal among state legislators and I personally helped install the app and create accounts for many lawmakers still in office today. Twitter served as sort of a meta-debate going on above the fray on the floor of the House and Senate chambers. Representatives and senators would snipe at one another while they were waiting for their turn to talk in the well.
And, to this day it’s a good bet that lawmakers themselves, not some lowly legislative aide or press person, but the person whose name was on the ballot and got elected, is generally the one looking at their own Twitter and Facebook feeds throughout the day. Aides and other staff have access to their accounts and help monitor the information coming in and going out.
However, you should know that if you write a physical letter, make a phone call, send an e-mail, and send a tweet at your representative in Denver, the odds are that the tweet is the one communication out of all of them that actually makes its way directly to the lawmaker, unfiltered by staff. This seems to apply at the federal level as well, though less so as a result of pure volume. We are all painfully aware of the penchant our president has for the 140 character missive.
This is all to say that, believe it or not, right now as it stands the very best way to speak directly with your lawmaker, outside of a face-to-face meeting, is to tweet at them. You may even get a personal response directly from them. I never thought I’d say that, let alone write it down in the pages of Colorado’s Newspaper of Record, but, at least for now, it’s true.
True and good: Say what you want about the pitfalls of social media proliferation but voters, constituents and taxpayers have a real voice under the gold dome if
they know how to use it.