Twittering away: is this useful for the Lib Dems?

A couple of weeks ago the Politics Online newsletter featured this piece from me about the use of Twitter:

The recent withdrawal in the UK (and most other countries around the world) of free text updates from the micro-blogging service Twitter might have signalled a massive reduction in its use by the Liberal Democrats, but instead it has continued to grow in importance, helped by our experiments in tagging.

The party has just held its major annual conference, on the south coast of England in sunny Bournemouth, with several thousand members and media descending on the seaside town for a week-long conference that culminated in party leader Nick Clegg’s keynote speech.

During the Liberal Democrat conference Twitter really demonstrated its micro-blogging strengths. Regular Twitter updates from various conference attendees added a human touch to coverage, providing the personal colour that can add so much to official or media accounts. During major speeches and debates adding a touch of running commentary can help bring an event alive for those not there – and even for those there too. The combination of micro-blogging and the ability to post (if no longer to receive) words by text message is almost tailor-designed for such circumstances.

Having a stream of Twitter updates (Tweets) pop up on my computer was a bit like having microphones in the crowd at a sporting event – not as important as the main business, but adding a welcome, and enlightening, touch of atmosphere and understanding of reactions.

Bournemouth conference also saw an outbreak of hash tagging. This is the idea of adding a tag to all your Tweets about a particular event so that it is easy for people to spot all the Tweets being made by different people about the event, including from people they don’t normally follow. The convention is that a hash (#) is used to indicate that what follows is a tag. For the conference, #LibDem08 was the tag we used.

There are various tools which can be used in combination with hashtags, of which the simplest is TweetScan. By plugging #LibDem08 into this Twitter search engine, you can find all the (public) Tweets made using the tag.

As with most things Web 2.0, no-one centrally or formally decrees the hashtag taxonomy; rather, it is something that emerges from the Twitter community. In this case, we had a slight false start with two different tags in use – #LibDem08 and #LibDems08 – but as is the way with such things, a consensus quickly emerged and as the first few hashtags appeared, the practice quickly spread amongst other Twitterers at conference, helped along by an encouraging tweet from the party’s official Twitter channel.

As Alex Foster has highlighted there is more to hashtagging than simply Twitter. By using a common tag across other tools such as Flickr and Del.icio.us, you can bring together content from different platforms into one place.

From someone who had never used a hashtag a couple of weeks ago, I have now become a firm believer in their power. If you have a group of people going to an event – or watching the same even from afar – using tags brings together online coverage in a way that helps foster communities and gives a better and more interesting sense of what is actually going on.

The real test will be to see whether there are useful political opportunities to use such tagging before September 2009 and our next big annual conference. If it’s a genuinely useful tool, it shouldn’t have to wait a year for another use – so time will quickly tell.

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