Members of Congress Tweet Their Own Horns, Study Finds

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 2009

Researchers from the University of Maryland who plodded through more than 6,000 Twitter postings by members of Congress have found-- surprise! -- that politicians spend most of their time on Twitter promoting themselves.

The study was designed to determine whether the social networking revolution, and specifically, the arrival of Twitter, had opened a new era of dialogue between elected leaders and the public.

But the U-Md. team found that 80 percent of the postings fell into two categories: links to news articles and press releases, mostly self-serving and readily available elsewhere; and status updates that chronicle the pol's latest trip to the sawmill or the supermarket.

For example, this dispatch from Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii): "just completed weightlifting workout at the Nuuanu Y."

Or this, from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa): "I will b intrvud on AgriTalk at 10amCST. Pls tune in."

By contrast, the researchers found that members of Congress spent just 7 percent of their time interacting with citizens.

"Twitter by its nature is a very self-absorbed service," said Jennifer Golbeck, lead researcher and assistant professor in the university's College of Information Studies. "Politicians are very self-important people."

The team reviewed every congressional Twitter post through February. They also reviewed postings in June, when Congress was in session, and in August, when it was not.

They concluded that Twitter has yet to fulfill the promise of bringing elected leaders closer to their constituents. A Web site called TweetCongress has promoted Twitter as a means "to get our men and women in Congress to open up and have a real conversation with us."

Launched in 2006, Twitter allows users to send succinct (no more than 140 characters) reports on their comings, goings and musings. Sixty-nine members of Congress had Twitter accounts by February. The number has since risen to 169. An estimated 21 million people tweet worldwide.

The researchers announced their findings last week and hope to present them at an international conference in the spring on human-computer interaction.

Many Twitter postings read like very short press releases. We learn from Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), for example, that he is "working to help Iowans as they contend with all of the flooding throughout the state." Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) advises: "On Rachel Maddow right after this commercial break. Tune in!"

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company