Twittering the Election

Published on Author Christopher Fahey1 Comment

Last night was the second U.S. Presidential Debate. One of my favorite new election-based interactive user experiences (in addition to CNN’s approval graphs and CNN’s magic wall) is Twitter’s election.twitter.com. Here’s a sample of what you would have seen during last night’s debate:

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TechCrunch reviewed this site last week. Here’s their review in its entirety:

It sounds like a decent idea on paper: take every tweet about the candidates and stream them on a single, constantly updated site. Unfortunately, while it may be fun to look at for a few minutes, election.twitter.com is far too noisy to be worthwhile. There are no cohesive threads of arguments, and every quote that raises an eyebrow gets repeated ad nauseum. Verdict: Vetoed.

I completely disagree with TC’s analysis. It seems focused on extracting actionable, accurate, or even just coherent information. They’re disappointed in the quality of individual posts and the lack of consistent dialogue. It’s just “noise” to them.

Interestingly, the critique is identical to the initial criticism many people have of Twitter, before they actually try it and, hopefully, “get it”. They say it’s “just noise.” They say “who cares about everyone’s mundane, idle thoughts?”

Similarly, the nature and mechanism of election.twitter.com’s social function is, like Twitter itself, ‘ambient‘: It’s about getting an informal, general sense of what’s happening, not about following specific threads and individual thoughts. Just like with ambient music, you’re not supposed to actually listen to it in an attempt to extract something specific (for example a catchy melody, or a telling quote).

The “hot topics” keywords at the top of the page, extracted from the totality of the current twitterstream, are also extremely revealing. If you only look at that part of the page you’re already getting a real feel for the memes currently in circulation. Bite-sized but potent.

Bottom line: the site is not about finding content with immediate, actionable value. It’s about visiting repeatedly, or watching it flow by in your peripheral vision, without paying close attention. The goal is to synchronize with a certain public pulse.

(This is, coincidentally, what the New York Times home page does for me, albeit at a slower pace. I want to see what everyone is seeing and talking about today, and I trust that the Times home page will show that in a single page view, even if I don’t actually click through to any articles. It’s not about diving deep — it’s just about the broad overview of the zeitgeist.)

This new Twitter feature — this “topic-focused channel”, or whatever they call it — is a great new idea that I’d love to see extended to other areas and topics. It’s ideal for live events like debates, election night, live TV, sporting events, etc. Also for conferences, or even for private groups (a much-requested feature Twitter hasn’t yet delivered on). The idea is that you are really paying attention to something else — Twitter is just the back channel, the pulse of the topic. I can’t wait to see future implementations of this simple but powerful view.

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