#ColinDelanyIsRight About Hashtags

Yesterday, Colin Delany, a fellow online politico who runs epolitics.com, posted an article entitled “This Election’s Not Going To Be Won in Hashtags.” The main thrust of the article can be summed up with this line:

But let’s have a sense of proportion: a hashtag here and there is trivial compared with the grand sweep of presidential politics. Twitter’s a powerful tool to spread messaging and influence the opinion leaders, but it’s not the end-all of online politics — it’s just one weapon in the political arsenal.

When I read this yesterday I thought: “No shit.” Like Colin Says, Twitter is a single tool. Hash tags are a single tactic for that one tool. If you are going to try to run an online component of a Presidential campaign using just Twitter hash tags, good luck. It’s like building Mitt Romney a new mansion with only a hammer.

It turns out that a number of our peers disagree, even creating a #ColinDelanyIsWrong hash tag. Alan Rosenblatt tweeted: “FACT: A good hashtag puts ur msg in front of a huge audience 4 free. Nothing else u control does that.”

What I am not understanding is how this means Colin is wrong. He never says Twitter and hash tags aren’t useful as a tool. He even disclaims this in the original article: “please note that of course I’m not arguing that Twitter’s going to be irrelevant in the 2012 election.”

I’m willing to go much farther than Colin on this. I believe Twitter is currently overrated as an organizing tool for the purpose of electoral politics.

First, look at the numbers. As of May 2011, only 13% of online adults use Twitter. That means that 87% of online adults and all adults that are not online can not be reached through Twitter. It would be fair to assume that only a portion of Twitter users actively use and follow hash tags, creating an even smaller universe (though it is true that they can potentially see your message if someone they follow is in that smaller universe and retweets). While Twitter will certainly have more users over the next year than in May, it will still be a small minority of the electorate. Compare this with email and search, both with 92% adoption of online adults as of August, and social networks like Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn with 65% adoption.

Twitter is still a valuable tool, but its value in American politics lies mostly in reaching thought leaders, elites, early adopters, and some Millennials. I think that Twitter’s potency as a tool in the Arab Spring uprisings cause some people to overestimate it here. In those nations and events, Twitter was so effective because there were fewer tools to choose from, there was immediate necessity for networked organizing, and the stakes were life and death. No matter how good a campaign is, there is no way to replicate that sense of urgency and high-stakes in getting masses of people turned out to vote for one of two Presidential candidates whose parties both have low approval ratings.