Alberta political conversation thrives on Twitter

‘You have discussions where partisan politics doesn’t become involved’

February 12. It’s question period in the Alberta legislature and Conservative MLAs are tossing each other softball questions. Edmonton MLA Janice Sarich asks Sustainable Resource Development minister Ted Morton how the province’s new oilsands development plan will fit with the province’s land use framework. It “joins nicely” answers Morton. Earlier NDP leader Brian Mason was harsher saying the oilsands strategy’s real title should be: “Look Busy: Obama’s Coming and We’re in Trouble.”

While this is happening in the legislature another conversation is unfolding online on Twitter. Listen in:

“Janice Sarich is much smarter than the scripted questions she reads in QP.”

“Ted Morton is a jackass.”

“The NDP has a new leader Brian ‘Obama’ Mason.”

That last message is particularly funny — it’s sent from backbench Calgary MLA Kyle Fawcett’s mobile phone. Within minutes Fawcett (Twitter ID: @KyleMLA ) gets a sharp rebuke from an Edmonton political blogger ( @AB_get_rich ): “You’re in QP — should you be tweeting?”

In a way this second conversation is more engaging than the one happening in the legislature. It’s not just the predictable rhetoric of politicians talking to other politicians: it’s a conversation between bloggers MLAs artists and other citizens of various political leanings. Policy and even political philosophy is discussed. “It actually crosses party lines” says Doug Griffiths ( @GriffMLA ) an avid Twitterer and the Conservative MLA for Battle River-Wainwright. “You don’t have PC versus Liberal versus New Democrat. You have discussions where partisan politics doesn’t become involved.”


Let’s back up a bit because nothing that follows will make sense otherwise. What’s Twitter exactly? The social media utility is frustratingly difficult to describe. Its website calls it “a service for friends family and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?”

That doesn’t really sell Twitter well and many Twitterers say to ignore the “what are you doing” approach altogether. “If you ignore that then I think what Twitter really ends up becoming is a conversation” says Calgary Twitterer and arts advocate DJ Kelly ( @djkelly ). “For me that’s the benefit of Twitter.”

Think of it as a minimalist hybrid between a blog a chat room a message board and Facebook status updates. Twitter messages or “tweets” are 140 characters max and often include links to blog posts or news stories. Your tweets get sent to your “followers.” You in turn receive tweets of people you follow — a co-worker maybe or cyclist Lance Armstrong ( @lancearmstrong ) Prime Minister Stephen Harper ( @pmharper ) or local NGO ChristmasFuture ( @ChristmasFuture ). From there you can listen in and participate in different conversations. Some are local; others are more global.

“Because it is so simple it takes a while to really wrap your head around what it is” says Calgary web designer and Twitterer Wendy Peters ( @wendy ). “I think back to when the Internet first came out and people were just kind of looking at it going ‘What is this thing? What can we do with that?’ And every day somebody’s doing something new with it.”

During the last U.S. election politicians capitalized on social media like Twitter. Barack Obama got his message out not just with lengthy eloquent speeches but also brief tweets and text messages. He even announced his pick for running mate Joe Biden via text message. The American election experience convinced Calgary Liberal MLA Kent Hehr ( @calgarybuffalo ) to create a Twitter account. “You saw how this tool could be used effectively to get in touch with people” says Hehr 39. Now Hehr regularly posts updates about his work as an MLA and discusses politics with other Twitterers.

The frank-talking MLA says he wants constituents to let him know when they think he’s “full of shit” on an issue and Twitter’s one way they can do that. “I don’t need to hear from people when I’m doing things right” he says. “What I need to hear more from people is when I’m doing things wrong…. If this helps engage the public in any manner then hey I’m all for it.”

A handful of other Calgary MLAs are on Twitter including Conservatives Jonathan Denis ( @JonoMLA ) Lindsay Blackett ( @LindsayBlackett ) and Liberal Dave Taylor ( @calgarycurrie ). It’s Griffiths however who arguably has more mastery over the tool than any other Alberta politician. “[He’s] fantastic” says Kelly. “We need more political Twitterers like that — who actually have something interesting to say.”

A former teacher who lives in Hardisty Alta. — population 760 — Griffiths is contagiously enthusiastic about the technology’s potential recalling how the Greek philosopher Socrates went to the Athens marketplace to ask questions and discuss philosophy with young citizens. “It would help lead them to more information and new points of view and get their minds spurred on to thinking” says Griffiths who has a philosophy degree. “That’s what social media is. It’s the Socratic evolution of media.”

Like Hehr Griffiths values the Twitter conversations he has with constituents and others in the province. “In a social media context you can hear a whole lot of different perspectives from people who don’t write columns in the paper and don’t necessarily pick up the phone or come to your office with all the answers about how to fix things.” This online conversation is especially attractive to young people he says. “I don’t mean younger by age I mean younger by heart” adds Griffiths 36. “They’re not sitting there just taking feedback from media resources. They want to be part of it. They want to engage.”


Despite the hype around Twitter only a tiny fraction of Calgarians actually use it. According to the Twitter stats website www.twellow.com some 1200 people in Calgary have Twitter accounts. That figure is probably lower than the actual number because some Twitterers don’t list their location. Regardless the numbers are small: if there are 8000 Calgarians on Twitter that’s still only about 0.8 per cent of the city’s population. “That’s going to change” predicts Lyn Cadence ( @lyncadence ) a local publicist. “I really think the whole community will build over the next year.”

Twitter has other downsides. For one it can be intensely addicting and when used without restraint rude. At the recent “Twestival” in Calgary (a pub night for Twitter users) many people in the room couldn’t keep their hands off their BlackBerrys for more than a couple minutes even during a panel discussion on Twitter. To an outsider it seemed ironic: the technology is supposedly about connecting people but put a bunch of Twitterers in one room and they struggle to let go of the technology long enough to give full attention to each flesh-and-blood other.

For Hehr though Twitter is “just another avenue” of communication — one he hopes will engage more Albertans with politics. He still prefers hearing somebody’s voice to written correspondence electronic or otherwise but sees the value of social media. ”I think Twitter’s just another way to make that first contact” says Hehr.

And for Griffiths Twitter is comparable to a friendly conversation over coffee or beer. “You can watch people’s lights come on and their opinions change” he says. “It’s really exciting.”

Follow Fast Forward staffers on Twitter. Staff writer Jeremy Klaszus is @jeremyklaszus . Arts and lifestyle editor Drew Anderson is @drewpanderson .