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Some Nevada lawmakers embrace Twitter as communication tool


By Andrew Doughman, Nevada News Bureau: Mention government transparency and “Twitter” probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.

A communication technology that gives users 140 characters to share where they just had lunch or “Tweet” trivia about the weather and celebrities doesn’t immediately scream “politics” either.

But Nevada state legislators, lobbyists and journalists are finding more and more use in Twitter because the platform allows information gathering and governing at high speed.

“I think this year, what we’re going to see like never before are Tweets flying around while a hearing is going on,” said Barry Smith, president of the Nevada Press Association.

Using Twitter as a news feed, followers can know every political twist and turn within seconds. That includes the opening session of the legislative session today; two Senators and two Assembly members were Tweeting from the Senate and Assembly floor.

Freshman state senator and former journalist Ben Kieckhefer Tweeted that he had just voted for SB-1, a bill setting aside 15 million dollars for the legislative session.

“Mainly, I follow news,” said Kieckhefer in a recent interview conducted over Twitter. “I found out about (Sen. Bill) Raggio’s resignation via Twitter.”

Twitter keeps legislators in-the-know and could play an increased role at the capitol this year.

But the technology is still new to Nevada state politics. When only a few users Tweeted about state politics, it had limited value. It took a critical mass of bloggers, citizens, journalists, lobbyists and legislators to sign on during last year’s special session for the technology to have use.

“That kind of seemed like the time Twitter came into its own in the Nevada Legislature,” said Assemblyman David Bobzien. “It gave just a different level of coverage to what was happening minute by minute with the special session.”

Leading into the special session, the Twitter-savvy Nevada press corps agreed on the hashtag “#nvss” for all Tweets related to the legislative process. Hashtags are a type of tag people can use to track similar posts.

Following last year’s special session, nearly every political reporter in Nevada created a Twitter account.

“It is a good source of information for me, that’s probably the biggest benefit,” says Anjeanette Damon, reporter for the Las Vegas Sun who has used Twitter since 2007.

The technology, though, does have its downsides.

Keeping up with news at the state Legislature is easy for people who know to follow the right reporters, lobbyists and politicians as well as which hashtags to search for. This creates an insider clique, a “Twitterati” that can lead journalists to overvalue being the first to break the news on a platform most citizens do not use.

“I think it lent itself more to this big pack journalism mentality,” Damon said. “It creates a little bit of an information overload.”

Only about a dozen of the current state legislators use the platform, and many use it more as a campaign tool than a regular method of communication.

Those who do use it tend to be young and tech-savvy, and most state legislators have only a couple hundred “followers” on Twitter at best.

“I think it’s also kind of seen as being a generational thing,” said newly-elected Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas, who was an early-adopter of Twitter.

In a recent analysis, 47 percent of Twitter users are between 13 and 34-years-old. That number jumps to 63 percent for the same demographic among Facebook users.

Facebook catered exclusively to college students when it first launched in 2004. The company later allowed anyone with an e-mail address to join. So mom and dad are on Facebook now, and there’s no reason to say that same demographic won’t start Tweeting next.

At the national level, the political Tweeting set has already arrived. Most journalists working for national news websites and cable stations have Twitter accounts and many members of Congress are on Twitter, much to the chagrin of some critics.

In some ways, the increased use of these technologies merely reflects a change in how people communicate.

A decade ago, e-mail was still somewhat of a novelty.

“Of all the methods available for submitting input to your legislators, I’m pretty sure fax is the least effective,” said Bobzien in a post to his Twitter account several months ago. (He doesn’t have a fax.)

Along with Twitter, Bobzien blogs, e-mails, updates his Facebook page and fields phone calls.

But the best way to lobby a legislator may still be face to face, Bobzien said.

“Nothing substitutes with having coffees in your district, meeting with your neighbors, bumping into them in a grocery,” Bobzien said.

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