Every week, members of the Maine State Legislature engage in talk with constituents, with members of the media, and with one another. As social media use has expanded, a fair amount of that talk is now recorded for anyone with an Internet connection to see. Twitter has become an especially interesting social media platform for three reasons:
- Every post is public by default.
- The 140-character limit forces users to get right to the point.
- With a simple use of the @ character, Twitter users can speak directly to one another.
There are 57 members of the 127th Maine State Legislature who have signed up for a Twitter account and posted with it at least once in the last year. Which legislators have been active on Twitter in the last week? To whom have they been speaking? And what have they been talking about?
The image you see above displays patterns in the communications of the 26 Maine state legislators active on Twitter last week, April 5-11. Each legislator is indicated in either blue (for Democrats) or red (for Republicans), and the size of a legislator’s circular marker indicates how many Twitter posts (“tweets”) a legislator made in the past week. The high mark for communication volume last week goes to Rep. Diane Russell of Portland, who tweets as “misswrite” and made 54 posts to Twitter in seven days. Rep. Drew Gattine of Westbrook is a somewhat distant second, with 34 posts in the last week. Three of the legislators you see depicted above — Republican Ken Fredette of Newport and Democrats Justin Alfond and Mark Eves — posted no tweets themselves this week but are included in the network graph because Reps. Russell and Gattine tweeted to them. A total of 232 tweets were contributed by the 23 tweeting legislators (up from 176 the week before), and only five of them involved conversations with fellow Maine legislators. 7 legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, posted to Twitter in ways that didn’t mention anybody else. In social network parlance, these are isolates, and they are unconnected to anyone else in the network above.
As you can see, there are a number of Twitter users outside the legislature who are included in the network; legislators actually devote most of their Twitter activity to communication directed outside the legislature. I’ve labeled those Twitter accounts who were on the receiving end of Maine legislative tweets last week, and with one exception these network “outsiders” are actually insiders, politically active individuals or organizations that help broker power in Maine state government. These include Twitter accounts for state news outlets, for the Maine Democratic Party and Maine Republican Party, for the Twitter account of Maine Governor Paul LePage, and for accounts of communications directors for the parties or party-related groups:
- Matthew Gagnon, CEO of the Maine Heritage Policy Center
- Rachel Irwin, Communications Director for the Maine Democratic Party
- Jodi Quintero, Communications Director for House Speaker Mark Eves
- Rob Poindexter, Communications Director for the Maine House Republicans
David Murchison, the other individual mentioned by more than one legislator last week, posted an image of a crucifix to mark the Christian holiday of Easter, an image that Senator Amy Volk and Rep. John Picchiotti retweeted.
Easter was tied as one of the most popular subjects of legislator Tweets last week, mentioned in 8 Twitter posts. Also tied for #1 was the subject of taxes. The top five subjects of Maine legislators’ tweets last week were:
Easter: 8 tweets
Taxes: 8 tweets
Barack Obama: 5 tweets
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: 5 tweets
Welfare: 3 tweets
How is it that in 232 Twitter posts the most common subjects only appear 3-8 times? The answer is that the subjects of tweets by legislators in Maine are incredibly diverse, from Rep. John Picchiotti’s call for Mainers to help a Waterville family via a “dime drive”…
https://t.co/9E2fhXeLcL A Dime Drive – To help those who lost their homes in recent fires in Waterville.
— John Picchiotti (@jpicch) April 10, 2015
… to Rep. Ryan Fecteau’s applause for Barack Obama’s stance on gay conversion therapy…
… to Sen. Amy Volk’s reaction to an early spring weather report…
— Senator Amy Volk (@mom4volks) April 8, 2015
If roll call votes represent the tightest moment in legislative politics, when members of the Maine House and Senate are expected to choose sides and march in lock step regarding an agreed-upon agenda, social media talk might represent the loosest moment, when Maine’s representatives get to decide what they’d like to talk about, what they’d like to say, and how they’d like to say it.
Update, 4/14/15: If raw counts of phrases used by legislators in the text of their tweets last week reveals a long list of subjects, is it possible that a list of subjects of those tweets might be more concentrated? Well, yes and no. To assess this, let’s look at the use of hashtags (#), the way that users self-organize Twitter into a bunch of ever-shifting subjects. Here are the hashtags used more than once in tweets posted by Maine state legislators in the second week of April:
#mepolitics is, hands down, the most popular hashtag used by legislators last week, and that’s no surprise, since it is also the most popular hashtag for the curation of posts on Twitter about Maine politicos and Maine policy. #betterdeal4maine refers to legislative Democrats’ introduction of an alternative to Governor Paul LePage’s tax plan. Some of the other more inscrutable hashtags include #fitn (First In The Nation — a reference to an upcoming GOP conference in New Hampshire) and #letmatthewteach, an activist hashtag supporting Matt Eledge, a Catholic school teacher who was recently fired for being gay. But although there is greater consensus at least for the top two hashtags, there is also a “long tail,” to use the vocabulary of statisticians. Another 28 hashtags were used just once by legislators last week, another indication of a true diversity in topics of discussion.