Those of us trying to use email as a campaigning tool are running into some serious problems these days. Getting heard over all the background noise is becoming more difficult. Inboxes are filling up rapidly. At best we skim, and don’t read, the hundreds of messages we receive every week. And that’s the messages that actually get through our spam filters.
Unions need to find a way to cut through that noise and reach their members. Members need an alternative to the spam-filled, overflowing inbox. Everyone needs messages to be brief and to the point.
Twitter may offer a solution.
Twitter is relatively new online service that allows people to sign up and post very short messages. The limit is 140 characters. Twitter is completely free of charge, and advertising-free as well.
Once you’ve signed up to the service you can sign up as a ‘follower’ of an individual or organization, and receive those short messages, which are called ‘tweets’.
The real power of Twitter is that it’s platform-independent. You receive those messages where it’s most convenient for you. That can be through your own Twitter page on the web, or it can be as text messages to your mobile phone, or via the Instant Messager of your choice, or through an RSS news feeds.
I have to confess that when Twitter was launched, I was told about by a friend in the Netherlands. I didn’t get it. It struck me as being just one more time-waster. It turns out that he was right and I was wrong. Now I think that Twitter offers real potential for campaigning organizations like unions.
Though launched for one specific purpose (to tell your friends what you’re doing) Twitter was quickly adapted by campaigning organizations for our own purposes. I’m reminded of Meetup.com, designed as a dating service but now widely used by political campaigns.
The Hillary Clinton campaign began sending out ‘tweets’ and eventually had over 4,000 followers. The Barack Obama campaign did the same thing and got 44,000 followers. That says something about the success of the two campaigns in using new technology.
Twitter is used by the American Red Cross for get out short messages regarding natural disasters. Nasa uses Twitter to stream news from the Mars lander. (Followers of Nasa’s tweets were the first to learn that ice had been discovered on the red planet.) Mozilla used it to provide updated on the launch of the new Firefox web browser.
One of the most interesting uses of Twitter occurred when a young American activist visiting Egypt was arrested while covering anti-government demonstrations. While in police custody, he used his mobile phone to send off a one-word message to Twitter: “Arrested.” (Posting Twitter messages from one’s mobile phone is incredibly simple.) His friends, who were following his tweets, immediately began making phone calls and sending out emails. He was released from custody.
LabourStart launched its Twitter service in June 2008. We were initially aiming to solve one particular problem: How do you send out short text messages to phones in different countries, free of charge? Within a few hours, over 100 people — most of whom had not previously used Twitter — signed up to our group. By the time this article appears in print, we expect that number to exceed 1,000.
Unlike the other social networks such as MySpace and Facebook, Twitter need not be a time sink. We encourage people to sign up and become ‘followers’ of LabourStart, and to ensure that our messages are delivered to their mobile phones.
But we don’t encourage people to amass hundreds of friends, as one tends to do on other networks — because you don’t want too many text messages pouring into your phone. (You can instruct Twitter to only send messages from certain accounts to your phone and read the others online.)
The idea is not to add one more way to receive junk mail, to contribute to information overload. What we are trying to do is cut through the background noise, and to create a new delivery channel for important information and campaigns — in very short bursts. Twitter may be the solution we were looking for.