Debates a-Twitter

The Republican field has decided to take it’s next debate to Twitter–this could be interesting. Beyond the novelty appeal of never-been-done gimmick, the concept of engaging in a debate only using Twitter and the 140Townhall platform is likely to result in a variety of interesting observations about how campaigns and messages might be changing across various new media. The types of questions that the tweeting audience asks candidates may differ from those asked in a traditional debate, or even in an online debate (like the Youtube ones have done before). The way candidates answer questions will obviously change, and it could be the case that certain ideas, types of information, or arguments are put forth on Twitter than other forms of debate. But even before the debate begins, it seems like the form—especially the presence of numerous Twitter-based measures of analytics alongside the debate itself, are important to think about, even before focusing on what people do or say.

Debate analytics have always been important to campaigns’ messaging strategies, and recently, they’ve become part of the debate experience for the viewing public. We’ve watched debates that track “public opinion” in real time using little lines that gauge how much people enjoy or are excited by or approve of what candidates say, watched newscasters interview focus groups immediately after a debate, and reports on who won the debate (or which topics) are almost always the lead story the next day. This debate is different. The analytics provided by the 140Townhall platform—those of number of Twitter followers, retweets, and mentions—involve many more variables than the good/bad indicators of a dial test. The content getting retweeted may be inspirational (thereby making the analytics similar to dial testing), but it is also likely to involve serious gaffes being made (thus inverting the dial testing model) and amusing info (something that was never really part of measuring success before). Tangentially related, it will be interested to see if this type of live public analysis causes snowballs of opinions or content—and what kinds of opinions or content—since the networks of information flow lend themselves to that on Twitter.

In providing very new analytics by which people can measure, rate, and judge candidates and debates, the next logical question is, how will this affect how we understand success in this debate (and potentially in other debates to come). Surely, dial testing will still reign supreme within campaigns—it shows exactly what works in terms of issues, language, tone, and timing, and these will always be integral to messaging. More interesting will be how press and blog coverage of the debates describes and defines success(es?). Might this (at least a tiny bit!) rewrite the analytics that are part of the public arsenal of political judgment? And if so, thinking about the ramifications of who that benefits—on both the candidate and citizen side of things—becomes an intriguing proposition.

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