The Tweeting Classes
Twitter has the ability to connect citizens with their democratic leaders. But in Austria, the divide has not yet been bridged
Twitter boasts a global network in which over 140 million active users post some 340 million messages a day, advertising nightclubs or chatting about celebrities.
Yet in Austria, the platform has become a political microcosm in which the Green party is the dominating force and Stefan Petzner, a confidant of the late Jörg Haider, has followers across the political spectrum.
With a rapidly growing membership, Twitter is part of the same online social networking trend that has buoyed Facebook. But it functions differently: Users post short messages on their personal page that is visible to the Internet public, while Facebook allows users to restrict their readership to selected "friends". Because of this, Twitter provides a flat communication platform in which ordinary users can "follow" and respond to posts by prominent pundits and politicians. Yet in Austria, the political chattering classes seem to remain among themselves.
"While in the U.S. Twitter is used as a celebrity tool as well as a marketing and service tool, in Austria it is very concentrated on a single sector: the media," says Judith Denkmayr of Digital Affairs, a social media agency.
Austria has a Twitter membership of about 77,500 according to Digital Affairs. Since the site launched in 2010, the number has more than doubled every year, but it is still small compared to the 2.8 million Austrian Facebook users.
On a global scale, moreover, Austria lags far behind the most active Twitter countries like the Netherlands, Japan, Spain and the U.S., according to Semiocast, a French social media research company. "In Austria, the broad masses are not on Twitter and yet people feel that it is a trend," says Denkmayr.
Making the news
Denkmayr puts Twitter’s disproportional visibility down to its use by a select group of opinion leaders: "Twitter has become more noticeable because so many journalists are actively using it as a platform to get their stories out and spark debates – and people are interested in what they have to say," she says.
When Twitter was first launched in 2006, it was mainly used by people in the IT sector. "That was the pre-Wolf era," explains Denkmayr, referring to Armin Wolf, an anchorman on public broadcaster ORF. With 42,300 followers, Wolf has become the most popular figure in Austria’s Twitter scene. He is mentioned in 196 tweets a day, and is also responsible for a peak in the site’s activity: At 22:00 on weekdays, his news show Zeit im Bild 2 attracts a barrage of real time commentary on Twitter.
Wolf says he originally started using Twitter to promote his show, but over time, the platform itself became his most important news agency, as media insiders post links to emerging stories and events on the site. A recent study on Twitter’s role in Austrian politics, entitled Twitterpolitik, highlights a closely-knit network of journalists, politicians, experts, and citizens interacting on the platform.
"Twitter links up interested citizens and multipliers from the journalistic sector, enabling them to make their voices heard," says Axel Maireder, one of the study’s authors.
A platform for backbenchers
But political tweeting is still the preserve of an "information elite", Denkmayr points out: The typical Twitter user in Austria is over 25, highly- educated, and uses the medium to
discuss complex issues.
Some politicians have cottoned on, and are harnessing Twitter to access journalists and opinion leaders who in turn act as multipliers. Notably, the site has given backbench politicians a way to bypass conventional party channels and command greater attention than their leaders. Two opposition figures have been particularly adept at navigating the Twitter sphere: Peter Pilz, the Greens’ mercurial spokesperson for security, and Stefan Petzner, an MP from the Alliance for Austria’s Future (BZÖ), the smallest party in the parliament with 16 seats.
Chancellor Werner Faymann's Twitter account, by contrast, backfired. With 2,500 followers, his account is less successful than its spoof rival, "WernerFailmann", which has nearly 8,000 followers. Meanwhile, the Chancellor seems to have given up: His official account has been moribund since November.
Faymann’s decision to use a PR team to tweet on his behalf as "TeamKanzler" appears to have been fatal; the key to Stefan Petzner’s success is precisely that he tweets himself. "He is authentic and I appreciate that," says Corinna Milborn, deputy editor of the weekly magazine News and an active Twitter user.
Most strikingly, the site has enabled Petzner to engage with public figures whose views are diametrically opposed to his own. So, the irony of Austrian Twitter is that it has strengthened the bond between politicians and journalists while doing little to bring ordinary citizens closer to their elected representatives – at least so far.