Power and social media: it’s complicated

Irish politicians provide a lesson in how not to use Twitter and influence people, a new study shows

There are a few things that people noticed early on when they joined Twitter – and by "joined", I mean really joined, not popped in occasionally for a little self-promotion.

One is that it can seem chaotic, random even. Messy. Another is that, unlike Facebook, the relationship between users is hierarchical. I follow you, but it is not a requirement of the platform that you have to reciprocate and follow me. So you don't. And vice versa.

That doesn’t mean that the person with the large follower account is always the more influential or the most “popular” or that the power they do possess is immutable. Even when factors such as retweet counts, tweet-per-follower ratios and who’s-replying-to-who are considered, there are few clear-cut answers.

Is the person who talks the most always the heavyweight in the room? Of course not. Being powerful and being vocal are two different things. Power, most obviously the financial kind, commonly thrives in silence. That guy who makes a show of only half-listening to others as he sits at an awkward side-angle to the boardroom table? He is probably being paid more than you.

Nevertheless, public relations firm WHPR and the politics hounds at Electionista have taken a stab at compiling a Twitter power list and, if there is one thing Twitter loves, it's a list.

The #Power100 researchers have used what they call “network analysis”, studying the “interconnections, intersections and influence” of an initial group of 250 to see who has the most “power followers” (as opposed to “public followers”) and who is “shaping and informing political debate and policy in Ireland”.

I’m more interested in who can crack a joke at 7am, but this isn’t a study for dwelling on the soft power of humour – unless you’re the kind of person to be tickled by the mental picture of a fly that is “ really annoying” @GerryAdamsSF, the fourth-placed influencer and highest-ranked TD. Instead, the #Power100 focuses more directly on who is exploiting social media to make an impact on “the policy agenda”.

To a large extent this involves people – mostly men – who have brought offline power and influence to the platform, rather than people who have used Twitter to generate power and influence.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it inspirational to have watched users tweet their way into new jobs, new gigs, new lives, new personalities, even. For some users, social media has proven an effective personal billboard, whether they intended it that way or not.

When it comes to hard politics, however, WHPR's head of public affairs, Alistair Hodgett, must surely be right when he says the general picture is one of "missed opportunity and unutilised potential". The PR firm is being polite when it surmises that the inactivity of the @EndaKennyTD account reflects "a switch to using party and government accounts and uncertainty about how to best manage his social media presence".

It is, frankly, a complete embarrassment that the Taoiseach and his team have not tweeted via this account since July 2011.

It’s not that political leaders of other countries are so adept at winning hearts and minds via their Twitter teams. If anything, @David_Cameron and @BarackObama work best as an opportunity for the public to vent in reply. That’s not all they do, however. Important announcements, including the UK government coalition’s last reshuffle, are also made in real time via those accounts.

All any politician irked by journalists occupying so many of the top spots on a “power” list have to do is set about undercutting their influence one tweet at a time.

But in letting his message filter out through @FineGael or the Government service MerrionStreet.ie, Kenny’s approach to Twitter lacks the illusion of a personal touch that social media demands. Worse, there is the suspicion that his account will suddenly, and cynically, become active again when the next general election comes round.

So, yes, social media refuseniks may well be very busy running things like, say, the country. But to not even bother trying to cement your “real world” power through an individual Twitter account? In 2014 that has the whiff of arrogance: Power dependent upon the electorate is not the kind that can afford to be silent.

Influencers and would-be influencers who finally sign up to the Twitter-madness will find a stream of professionals offering to “do” their social media for them. Unless you’re an idiot, a do-it-yourself approach will often work better – just ask cuddly old Gerry “I have made peace with the fly” Adams. Any other advice boils down to “words and pictures matter”. Get them right but try not to be bland about it.