A new study by the Pew Research Internet Project -- sounds cool, right? -- has found that all conversations on Twitter can be broken down into six basic types: Divided, Unified, Fragmented, Clustered, In-Hub & Spoke and Out-Hub & Spoke. (And, yes, the types of Twitter conversation sound suspiciously like a Waffle House hash brown order.)
Political Twitter, which we define as the often-toxic mix of reporters, politicians, staffers and other interested parties, falls into the category of "Divided" and, surprise, surprise, tends to be the least productive of all types of conversation happening on the microblogging service.
Here are the authors of the Pew study describing the inhabitants of Political Twitter:
If a topic is political, it is common to see two separate, polarized crowds take shape. They form two distinct discussion groups that mostly do not interact with each other. Frequently these are recognizably liberal or conservative groups. The participants within each separate group commonly mention very different collections of website URLs and use distinct hashtags and words. The split is clearly evident in many highly controversial discussions: people in clusters that we identified as liberal used URLs for mainstream news websites, while groups we identified as conservative used links to conservative news websites and commentary sources. At the center of each group are discussion leaders, the prominent people who are widely replied to or mentioned in the discussion. In polarized discussions, each group links to a different set of influential people or organizations that can be found at the center of each conversation cluster......The structure of these Twitter conversations says something meaningful about political discourse these days and the tendency of politically active citizens to sort themselves into distinct partisan camps.
Here's my shortened version of that analysis: We are talking past one another, not to one another. Political Twitter -- like cable news, talk radio and even Waffle Houses -- is simply another way in which people of different political persuasion exist in totally separate worlds from one another.
That's not to say Political Twitter is all bad. I've used The Fix Twitter community to build a list of the best state-based political reporters, the best political movies and presidential biographies ever and, more selfishly, to eat at great local food places (and drink at great coffee joints) when I am traveling for work. And, day in and day out, I find myself laughing out loud at a funny comment made on Twitter in response to something I've written or reading a great story that someone forwarded to me via Twitter.
But, viewed broadly, Political Twitter is, like cable and radio before it, a medium in which partisans seek out information that agrees with their perspective rather than data that questions their beliefs. And, that can make for a noxious daily experience.