By Kelsey Radcliffe and Samantha Downing
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – In an era of ever-changing technology, politicians are reaching out to their constituents through social networking sites like Facebook, and more recently, Twitter.
Twitter is a service similar to a blog – except that posts, called “tweets,” are limited to 140 characters. Users can update their status online, by sending text messages from their cell phones or from computer and phone-based applications. These status updates are then delivered to the user’s followers in the same manner.
Of the 140 members of Virginia’s General Assembly, 30 have Twitter accounts – five senators and 25 delegates. The most active legislator on Twitter is Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville.
“I began tweeting during my gubernatorial campaign to communicate with a larger number of voters,” Deeds said.
By the end of this year’s veto session on April 21, Deeds had tweeted 891 times and had 3,414 followers.
“I tweet about what I am doing and what music I am listening to, which is more personal than some other forms of communication,” like speeches or press releases, Deeds said.
Another legislator active on Twitter is Delegate Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon. He had 615 tweets and 313 followers at the end of the veto session.
Surovell said he signed up for Twitter to keep in touch with friends and had an account before he was elected. Social media helps him reach out to his constituents.
“It helps me get the word out about public policy issues that I am concerned about and about articles I write on my blog,” Surovell said.
Delegate Albert Pollard, D-Lively, also uses Twitter to keep in touch with people. Many of his tweets are about his family or focus on day-to-day events instead of politics.
“In today’s world, I think the problem is that politicians aren’t humanized enough,” Pollard said. “I felt like it was a good tool in order to help keep me human and keep in touch with friends, and supporters are largely friends.”
Even Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Gov. Bob McDonnell have Twitter accounts. Cuccinelli uses Twitter to keep his followers updated on events he is attending, while McDonnell usually posts links to articles or press releases.
Here are more interactive graphics about legislators who use Twitter.
Some legislators who have Twitter accounts don’t use them. Delegates Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, and Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, have never tweeted at all.
Others use Twitter infrequently. Delegate Dave Albo, R-Springfield, has tweeted 10 times, but not recently.
“I have a Twitter account but don’t know how to use it,” Albo said.
Virginia legislators on Twitter range in age from 26 to 75; their average age is 47. Delegate James “Will” Morefield, R-North Tazewell, is the youngest tweeting lawmaker; Sen. Yvonne Miller, D-Norfolk, is the oldest.
“It just kind of seemed like a fun thing to do. I’m a little bit older, but I’m willing to try new things,” said Pollard, who is 42.
Of the legislators using Twitter, 11 are Democrats and 19 are Republicans. Although more Republican lawmakers use Twitter, Democrats have more than twice as many tweets (2,825) tweets as the Republicans (1,020).
During a busy session, something like Twitter might not be the first thing on a legislator’s mind. Cindy Rhodes, legislative aide to Delegate Christopher Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, said Stolle doesn’t use Twitter during General Assembly sessions.
“He prefers to limit his distractions and focus on the debate and bills before him,” Rhodes said.
Many legislators operate their own accounts, but some are updated and maintained by their aides or other staff. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling‘s account is almost always updated by his staff.
Twitter can be used in conjunction with other social networking sites like Facebook by changing the settings so the user’s tweets go directly to his or her profile.
“We connected my Twitter account to Facebook to further broaden the audience,” Deeds said.
When comparing the two services, some legislators have a preference, while others use both.
“I’d say they are both equally useful. They have different audiences and different advantages,” Surovell said.
Twitter can be used to directly communicate with constituents and supporters. Users can tweet directly to another user – this is called an “@ reply” and can be differentiated from other tweets because it starts with an @ symbol and the user’s name.
Of the 30 legislators who use Twitter, Deeds had the most communication with other users – 211 of his 891 tweets were @ replies to or mentions of other Twitter users.
But some legislators may find Twitter’s method of communicating with others frustrating, or like Pollard, they simply just don’t receive a lot of replies from followers.
“Unlike Facebook, it’s not a tool where I get a lot of feedback, and that can be frustrating,” Pollard said. “It’s more like a one-way street, and I don’t like that.”
Twitter is growing rapidly in popularity, and more politicians are likely to use the service during future legislative sessions and election campaigns to connect with the public.
“I try to use social media to humanize me,” Pollard said. “And so it’s not as much about politics – obviously it is because I’m a politician, but I lead a normal life just like everybody else.”
More: Tweets Run Gamut from Weighty to Wacky
This package of stories was published by such CNS clients as RVANews, RichmondBizSense.com and the Gainesville Times.