To Tweet, Or Not To Tweet:
Queens Politicos Chart A Course On Social Media’s Unfamiliar Shores
By Joseph Orovic
How well do you know your elected officials? Not in the banal sense of their actual name, party affiliation, voting records or any of the other political lucre they peddle during election season. Forget all of that.
If you’re an Astoria native, Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) may be a familiar face, now well into his third term in office. But how about his boyish joy in ripping along neighborhood streets, his Harley Davidson hog rumbling beneath his derriere?
Northeast Queens voters may be surprised by Councilman Dan Halloran’s (R-Whitestone) penchant for rebuilding pickup trucks – and his everyman-like troubles with DIY repairs.
Sure, Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest) doesn’t exactly spark cries of excitement whenever he addresses a crowd – but the guy is a veritable cutup on Twitter.
Such hobbies and personality quirks were once the domain of private life and perhaps the occasional sentence within a profile in community weeklies such as the one you’re holding. But the explosion of social networking sites has forced us to question the delineation between professional, public and personal life – and politicians aren’t immune.
A New Era
The post-Anthony Weiner era of political tweeting and status updates has constricted accessibility, but it has not killed Facebook’s ability to make our elected officials more than just burly suits touting legislation.
Some have bounded into the web’s 24/7 expression-machine with abandon. Others have kept a safe distance. But all have opened up a new avenue to connect directly with their constituents – their bosses.
Yes, politicos must still be erudite, well-versed and legislatively savvy. But now they must also be human.
Not in the baby-kissing photo op way, or helping a constituent in need. Technology allows politicians to be one of us, connecting directly via tools once unimaginable. If they have a love of Led Zeppelin, or are having troubles growing a garden, they’re free to share.
But how human is too human?
Treading The New Frontier
If you’re seeking authenticity online, our borough’s politicos offer it in droves. Chief among the sharing offenders is Vallone, whose Facebook status updates can be of great substance to his constituents – but sometimes are not far removed from a bubbly tween’s. Hell, he even uses smiley emoticons and spurns proper capitalization and punctuation rules at will. This, surely, is no way for a three-term councilman to present himself. Or is it?
Vallone asserts he made no conscious decision about how to approach Facebook.
“It just sort of unfolded that way,” he said. “I didn’t even want to start a page. My staff made me.”
Little did his staff imagine the Facebook hound they created. Care for a sample?
“so i was just working out in my “anti-crombie” shirt, and there’s a guy working out in a “fitch” shirt. the mind boggles with the possibilities... :)” Vallone recently wrote, three hours after an extensive post about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing.
His doppelganger in sharing is Halloran, who posts anything of personal or professional merit with gusto. From a dog found in his district to bruises on his calf sustained during some handiwork – everything is game.
“I think the personal approach is kind of what Facebook is all about,” he said. “I think it’s good to see I’m normal. If more elected officials did this on their pages, people may feel better about government.”
Others elect a safer route, like Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), who has toned down the more personality-driven aspects of his social networking persona. Gone are the personal status updates. Instead, his Facebook page has become a de facto wing of his constituent outreach operation.
“When I was running and I got elected and took office, I certainly understood that many more people were going to those sites because they were constituents or they were interested in the things I was doing in politics and government,” he said. “The line between personal and private for elected officials is a fine line and sometimes they can blur. I definitely view it in a way where it’s more of a public and professional outlet as opposed to a personal one. Since I’ve been an elected official, I don’t think I’ve put up vacation photos.”
Others sit on the fence, like Lancman, who has four outlets online to reach his constituents, but personally controls only one – and it shows.
He has arisen as the Twitter jester, known for his 140-character politicking mixed with cutting wit. But he admits to its pitfalls.
“If you have within you a capacity to be sarcastic or you like to use humor you have to be very careful because it’s very difficult to convey a nuanced complete message in 140 characters or less,” he said. “Something you might think is funny today or witty today, someone somewhere might find to be obnoxious or unprofessional. Twitter is a medium that invites thoughtless commentary.”
Authenticity – even personality – has its useful limits, according to Baruch College School of Public Affairs Dean Dr. David Birdsell, who spends way more time thinking about this stuff than most people.
“I think that this is still very much in gestation and what the terms of authenticity are have yet to be defined,” he said.
Birdsell asserts the proliferation of social media adds an additional layer to the public persona a politician typically molds and maintains.
“Everybody who runs for office adopts a public face that’s based on who you really are, of course. There’s an identifiable personality,” he said. “This builds at least the prospect of proximity to constituents whereas before I’m not so sure it was always there. It allows you to get into an exchange.”
It’s All In The Use
All of the elected officials have lauded social media’s ability to track issues in their district, often in real-time.
Vallone pointed to last year’s blizzard, and the lackluster cleanup that followed, as an exemplary moment in the very practical uses of Facebook.
“I wrote, ‘My block isn’t shoveled, how about yours?’ and got a ton of responses,” he said.
Major calamities tend to be when constituents benefit most from their representatives’ social networking habits.
“We were very active during [Hurricane Irene] and we used social media to a great extent to update people,” Van Bramer said. “We saw an instant jump in friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter. There were a lot of folks who said, ‘Oh that’s a really good way to report things.’”
The communication is a two-way street. Van Bramer said he has sent photos of community hazards or issues posted on his Facebook page to various agencies, demanding they be addressed.
Various members of the elected officials’ staff also lauded the constituent-connecting aspect of social networking, but quietly lamented their bosses sharing tendencies.
“It’s obviously something I keep an eye on,” said Halloran’s Director of Communications Steven Stites. “It’s useful because usually if you want to know where the councilman is, you can check Facebook.”
Vallone recently reached a social networking milestone. He has approached Facebook’s 5,000-friend limit, and has regrettably had to start cutting some folks loose.
Maybe it is his flair for posting conversation-invoking status updates (despite his daughters giving him an epic FAIL label). Or maybe it’s his tech-savvy constituency. Whatever it is, he promises he won’t change – regardless of what office he runs for in the future.
“My staff has called me a 15-year-old,” he said. “If I get elected [to another office in the future], my page will never change.”
Reach Deputy Editor Joseph Orovic at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 357-7400, Ext. 127.