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Twitter drives the national conversation in the theatrum mundi

By Richard Stanton - posted Tuesday, 30 August 2011

"Twitter is on fire this morning. Some fantastic articles coming through" - @jboyded

The Prime Minister Julia Gillard says we need (sometime in the future) to have national conversations about the big issues – carbon tax, immigration, mining, etc.

She misses the point. The conversations are already ignited and fired up.


Like the conversations about rioting and cleaning up in London that are happening in the Twitterverse.

Twitter has replaced the letters pages and call back radio because it's without intervention – no seven second delay, no sub-editor cutting your best par.

Citizens can participate in the 'national conversation' without going out in the rain and without being subjected to the rants of the professional political classes.

A democracy is a democracy when it is subject to the ongoing rigorous participation of its citizens.

For most of the 20th century newspaper pages devoted to letters submitted by ordinary citizens played a vital role in the democratic process.

Citizens were eligible to write about anything and everything – namely issues to which they felt some emotional or rational attachment.


(It was less so in earlier centuries when the literacy rates in the western world were themselves the issue.)

If the issue happened to coincide with the agenda-setting focus of the newspaper itself, so much the better, it had a greater chance of being published.

The letters to the editor pages was an instrument that provided an insight into ordinary political argumentation – letters pages offered perspectives on hot button issues that sidestepped the rhetoric of the elected representative and the political party.

As newspapers have been reduced in scope, size and distribution, the letters pages too have been reduced in quantity.

Despite the contraction in available media space, highly flammable issues - carbon tax, nuclear energy, gay marriage, and immigration - continue to frame the public consciousness.

The public space for this ordinary form of political argumentation between advocates and opponents has shifted remarkably to Twitter; an instrumental micro-blog that mirrors the brevity and irony of the letters pages, and the anger and face value of the call back radio program with the vital added element of immediacy.

With its 140 character limitation and its openness to all it has surfaced as the natural successor to the letters page and call back radio.

Unlike the letters pages and the radio, however, which were always subjected to the censorship of editors, Twitter is the unbound Prometheus.

It has, as we have seen in the past couple of years, the capacity and capability to fire the imagination and to drive the policy agenda.

US president Barack Obama employed it only a short time ago in an attempt to drive the fiscal agenda in Washington towards resolution of a tax deadlock.

It was used swiftly, if not effectively, to place Iran and its political instability at the top of the trending topics in 2009.

And the London rioters, followed by the cleanup squads, used it for bad and good.

Measurement of the effectiveness of Twitter as an instrument of ordinary political argumentation is similar in scope to measuring the effectiveness of the letters pages.

In 2008 Uli Windisch of the University of Geneva measured successfully the daily political communication and argumentation occurring in letters pages in Switzerland.

While the Swiss case is peculiar for its political system of direct democracy, as Windisch points out, its basic argument can also be applied to Twitter to obtain a better understanding of argumentation.

Like Windisch I would argue that representation of the ordinary political argumentation developed and played out on the Twitter micro-blog is a supplement rather than an alternative to traditional abstract and structural approaches to the topic.

A strong supplement to political argumentation will by its very nature increase the strength of the initial structure of the debate, dialog or conversation.

Politicians in recent years have stepped back from the word 'narrative' and its elitist overtones to talk about political argumentation as a 'conversation'.

The prime minister states that Australians will have a 'national conversation' about the hot issues including carbon tax, immigration and now, paradoxically, a very fast train.

Ms Gillard's constant use of the words 'national conversation' became a topic itself for one Melbourne newspaper.

"A conversation is something politicians in a tight spot say is required when they don't have a clue how to approach a problem. This is elevated beyond the old tried and true 'dialogue' to the need for 'a national conversation' when the issue is perfectly irredeemable."(The Age).

But the prime minister does not reveal where this national conversation might be taking place, or how ordinary folk (as Barack Obama calls us) may become involved in it.

Most Australian politicians, thankfully, have not grasped the significance of the public tweet space; but ordinary folk are tweeting themselves hoarse.

The #carbontax hashtag for example refreshes every second 24/7. And #agchatoz gathers interesting and erudite Tweets every Tuesday night for a conversation about rural and regional issues from AI to mental health.

It has taken a couple of years longer than it did in the US for citizens searching for space to put their opinions - advocates and opponents - but now they are attuned there is no turning back.

Twitter is available to anyone with access to a computer and wifi; it is in effect the 21st century version of the 19th century English coffee house, the site where traders, media and politicians exchanged information and news over a cup of the newly discovered beverage (is this why Starbucks provides wifi with their coffee?)

The big difference is that now the public Twittersphere is more widely accessible than was the public coffeehouse to the marginalised ordinary folk in the 18th century.

It offers both a space in which to have the national conversation, if that's what it must be called, and for those searching for resolutions to the hot button policy issues it provides a measurable instrument of public opinion.

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About the Author

Richard Stanton is a political communication writer and media critic. His most recent book is Do What They Like: The Media In The Australian Election Campaign 2010.

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All articles by Richard Stanton

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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