(Note: This is Part 2 in a three-part series on the evolving use of social media in government and campaigns. On Monday, IdahorReporter.com will examine use of Twitter, Facebook and blogs among those running for Congress in Idaho. Tuesday's feature provided a look into how state departments use social media to spread their messages. This story focuses on their use by state legislators. See that story here.)
When social media first came around in the form of MySpace and Facebook, it was seen as a way for teens to keep in touch, discuss social trends and music, and post pictures of their life happenings on the Internet through a very easy to use format. Each social media tool, including Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and blogs, has evolved since its original creation and has expanded its functionality to meet the needs of it users. Idaho state legislators have taken notice and are beginning to utilize social media websites in greater number, though some lawmakers don’t fit what many believe to be the mold of a typical social media user.
Several lawmakers have blogs, Twitter accounts, and Facebook fan pages to help spread their messages to a diverse and varied audience. During the 2010 session, Rep. Branden Durst, R-Meridian, tweeted (meaning he sent messages through Twitter) before, and sometimes throughout the course of, committee meetings and House floor sessions. He delivered messages to followers about specific issues or pieces of legislation that lawmakers considered each day. On his campaign website, Durst uses a YouTube video to explain his candidacy for the state Senate, as well as ask for donations and encourage those interested in his Senate run to contact him through social media outlets. It is important to note that Durst, in his 30’s, is the youngest member of the Idaho Legislature and fits within the 18-54-year-old demographic that makes up more than 75 percent of all Facebook users.
Durst told IdahoReporter.com that he sees blogging as a way to reach a certain audience. "You have to meet people where they're at," said Durst, who feels that social media offerings by legislators should complement town halls and face-to-face contact, not replace them. He predicts that in the future, social media offerings will again evolve to a point where legislators will be able to offer town hall-type meetings over the Internet through messaging services like Skype or MSN Messenger. Durst believes this evolution will come as a result of greater digital understanding by the youngest voting demographic. "People in younger generations recognize that there are different ways to do things and we aren't afraid to try new things," he said.
The use of social media is not strictly for younger lawmakers anymore. A member of the older makeup of the Legislature, Rep. Steve Thayn, R-Emmett, authors a blog of his own, with mixed results. Thayn said that his blog allows him to go more in-depth on issues than he can on Facebook. Thayn, though he has a personal Facebook page and a fan page, said the social media site is often too superficial and confrontational to promote deep political discussion.
So has the use of his blog or Facebook helped him become closer and more connected to constituents? Not really, said Thayn, who added that the use of social media has become so prevalent that it he feels it difficult to cut through everyone else's messages to share his own. "It's increased my exposure a little bit," he said, noting that his blog has 16 or 17 regular followers. He said that he has no interest in using Twitter because he doesn't understand how to use it.
State Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, like Thayn, has a blog, a personal Facebook page, and a campaign Facebook fan page. Hagedorn's blog, unlike Thayn's, gets little use by the representative and has not been updated in more than a year. Hagedorn said that he ditched the blog in favor of Facebook because of its ease of use and versatility. He said that Facebook allows him to relay information to constituents without requiring them to open an email or go to a certain website.
"I think it's a great way to put the information out in short bursts that don't really bother people," said Hagedorn. "They don't have to take action to open or delete an e-mail; just read it or not and comment if they feel they need to."
Ron Baker, president and CEO of Ecliptic Marketing and Consulting, an Idaho Falls-based company which advises legislators on utilization of social media tools, said that many state lawmakers have begun using Facebook because it reaches a wide array of the citizenry. He said that of all the offerings of social media, Facebook is the most popular among legislators because of its ease of use. He noted that many lawmakers shy away from using Twitter because they have a perception that it is more difficult to use than Facebook.
Reports indicate those 55 and older are beginning to use Facebook at greater levels. According to research, use of Facebook by the 55 and older crowd increased 922 percent between January 2009 and January 2010. During that time, almost 9 million people older than 55 began using the social media giant. What does that mean from local lawmakers? Baker believes it indicates that social media is now a necessary tool to reach out to all segments of the voting public. "They need to be a part of it," he said. "It is a very large communication tool that ought to be taken advantage of in campaigns."