The 140-Character-or-Less Campaign

May 07, 2012

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Twitter now has the power to drive a politician’s message and news coverage.

For those seeking an example of the breakneck pace of the mounting political “call and response” attack cycle, 84 minutes may very well be a new benchmark.

It took a mere one hour and 24 minutes for Mitt Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom to mount a Twitter offensive against Hilary Rosen after the Democratic strategist’s incendiary remarks on CNN last month about Romney’s wife Ann never having worked “a day in her life.”

And the most salient point of all: as responses go, Fehrnstrom’s was slow.

Welcome to the digital democracy, where Twitter has become a veritable particle accelerator for news cycles and political battles. The social media platform has given way to a ceaseless torrent of inside-baseball minutiae and partisan nitpickery. It is the home of meaningless scooplets and high-profile dustups. It is, for better or worse, the center of the political conversation, and it is transforming the way political campaigns and those who cover them do business.

“What happens on Twitter does not stay on Twitter—it is not Las Vegas,” says Peter Greenberger, Twitter’s director of political ad sales in Washington, D.C. And if anyone in Washington has reason to smile these days, it’s him.

“It’s amazing. Rosen’s initial comment was on CNN, but within seconds it exploded on Twitter and you can watch as it grew and grew until it bounced off Twitter and landed on the morning shows, evening news and the front pages of newspapers across the country,” Greenberger recounts.

Part of the reason for Twitter’s accelerated importance in the zeitgeist of political coverage stems from its stunning growth over the past three years. Last March, the company announced that it had achieved 140 million active users, up from 100 million last fall. Every day, Twitter hosts roughly 340 million new tweets.

To put that in perspective, it took Twitter three years, two months and one day to serve up 1 billion tweets; it now does that volume every three days. The New York Times’ David Carr likened Twitter to “a river of data.” Still others compare it to a violent gusher. Call it what you will: The tweets will flow with or without you.

This year’s presidential contest has already been pitched as the first truly digital election, despite the fact that politicos dubbed both the 2004 and 2008 elections as such. With each new election cycle comes proclamations about the latest technology’s impact. In 2004, it was the rise of the blogs. In 2008, CNN and many others asked whether that election would be won or lost on Facebook. This year, Twitter is home base to the political discourse, and journalists have set up shop to make sure they don’t miss a moment.

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