Twitter and the First Presidential Debate

The first presidential debate in 2012 was the most tweeted political event ever, Twitter reported in a blog post today.

A total of 10.3 million tweets were sent during the Romney vs. Obama faceoff, according to  a chart from Twitter.

So does this surge of activity make Twitter a winner of the debate?

Based purely on numbers, it would seem so. But I don’t think the answer is so simple.

The debate was rather wonkish, and the fact there was still so much activity on Twitter represents on some level that the platform serves a niche audience.

Compared to expectations, the debate lacked any major gaffes or snide remarks. It catered to political and news junkies, two of the main audiences that Twitter traditionally serves.

As was pointed out in a previous post, a recent study showed that only 13 percent of the American population is on Twitter.

Members of the general public were certainly active on Twitter during the debate, but  many news organizations, journalists, and readers or viewers who are already highly engaged with the media posted multiple tweets each.

Several writers have commented on the heavy Twitter traffic last night, but people should be cautious in their analysis. The number of tweets, 10.3 million, is astounding, but it’s easy to fall into a trap of insularity when reporting on Twitter and the debate.

Drew Olanoff wrote a piece for TechCrunch on this topic, saying, “What Twitter does is add a new dimension of participation, allowing people from all over the world to share their thoughts and feelings in real-time about something that’s really important.”

He noted that he encountered a number of people on Twitter with interesting insight or challenges to his perspective. “What Twitter has done is removed the political trends and influence from the hands of journalists and placed it into the hands of regular folks like my Mom and friends in Philly,” Olanoff wrote.

But how many tweets sent during the debate really came from so-called “regular folks” outside the circles of journalists and politicos? Some probably did, but the sudden democratization of debate coverage through Twitter should not be overblown.

As Brian Stelter of The New York times noted today, the Internet generally has had a significant impact on the coverage of debates.

He wrote, “Presidential debates are customarily scored and picked apart the instant the moderator says ‘good night’ at 10:30 p.m. But the Web is speeding up time. When the first of this season’s debates started on Wednesday in Denver, the scoring began at 9:01 p.m., as soon as Jim Lehrer, the moderator, said  ‘Good evening.’”

But it’s important to keep in mind who is doing the scoring, especially on Twitter. Equally important, too, is remembering just how important these debates really are.

Stelter offers a couple of paragraphs at the end of his piece that are helpful to this end:

“And in something of a Rorschach test, Votizen, a technology company, tracked Twitter messages from registered voters. Minutes after Mr. Lehrer ended the debate, Votizen found ‘love’ to be the top term used by Republicans and ‘tax’ to be the top term by Democrats.

And independent voters? The top term was ‘LOL,’ short for laugh out loud.”

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