If, like me, you feel warm and tingly inside at the sight of effective communication, then you’d understand the importance of the medium or channel used. Using the incorrect or inappropriate medium can be the death-knell for a well-intentioned message. When communicating simultaneously with multiple people, the choice of medium becomes an increasingly important factor for its efficacy. This is why the Twitter town hall-style meetings held by the DA and, recently, the ANC have driven me to complete distraction.
Sure, they are a huge step forward in how these parties interact with voters, but Twitter cannot be the right medium for this, surely. The ANC’s attempt to duplicate this model was an abysmal failure (so I’ll mostly ignore for now), but the DA’s Sunday #DAQA sessions have the potential for real, effective engagement but are thwarted by the medium.
First and most importantly, Twitter is not only famous for its 140 characters; it is also famous for its short-term memory. I’ve observed, in the case of the DA’s Q&A, the same questions asked week after week by different users. This is because once tweeted (and if unseen by other users), a tweet disappears into the ether and the question becomes all the more likely to arise again. There is no repository for all the questions and answers save for the Twitter search function, which is imperfect. No one is likely to go through the entire list to find the question they want to ask and, more tellingly, no respondent is likely (or has, even) referred a question to a previously tweeted answer. Not only it is bloody annoying to see the same questions resurface, but it also makes contradictory answers all the more possible, especially on grey areas. And given the limited time (1 hour) dedicated to these sessions, one would imagine (for real engagement) that the organisers would want to give priority to new and previously unanswered questions.
Then there’s the problem of the 140 characters themselves. They force brutal simplifications of often complex problems by both asker and respondent, forcing follow-up questions that are often a repetition of the original question. Yes, a word limit is good and, yes, many questions should be easy to ask or answer in 140 characters, but those are likely to be very surface-level. The deeper, probing questions that can sway voters likely require more character and characters. As an undecided voter, I have seen no answer so far from #DAQA that has swayed my vote. This is a likely truth for other undecideds.
And finally – there are more but this is my top 3 – there’s the problem of too many questions, too few answers (and/or respondents). Cudos to the DA for finally resolving it this week by roping in a whole team to respond to questions, but in the beginning, when time ran out, questions were disregarded. The ANC on the other hand, tweeting from one account in their first foray into Twitter town hall meetings, was simply swamped by questions both genuine and asinine. None of it was helped by Jackson Mthembu’s evasive responses.
I’m not the only one frustrated by this. @RichardAtUCT made some suggestions, including a live blog, which were shot down by #DAQA organisers. And @Arfness tweeted this: “Continue to collect Qs via twitter. Consolidate the questions and answer them fully on a blog or web page. Tweet a link to the response to the questioner (then) Q&A is avail for all. My point is that #DAQA is currently more about PR than actual engagement. I don’t think DA really understands social media. A tweetfest isn’t delivering any real long term value.” And later, “I’m not saying DA shouldn’t use twitter. I’m saying it should use it better.There are more efficient ways.”
As it stands, #DAQA generates a helluva lot of tweets, which, given the steadfastness that the current format is being adhered to, suggests that this what it’s really about. It’s that row of DA posters on the highway zooming by repeating, “Vote DA. Stem DA. Vote DA. Stem DA. Vote DA…”