Of the 140 members of Virginia’s General Assembly, 30 – five senators and 25 delegates – have Twitter accounts, but not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon.
Twitter is a service similar to a blog, except that posts, called “tweets,” are limited to 140 characters.
The most active Virginia legislator on Twitter is Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville. “I began tweeting during my gubernatorial campaign to communicate with a larger number of voters,” he said.
By the end of this year’s veto session, Deeds had tweeted 891 times and had 3,414 followers.
“I tweet about what I am doing and what music I am listening to, which is more personal than some other forms of communication” like speeches or news releases, Deeds said.
Del. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, is also a heavy tweeter. He had 615 tweets and 313 followers at the end of the veto session.
Surovell said he signed up for Twitter to keep in touch with friends and had an account before he was elected. He says social media helps him reach out to his constituents.
“It helps me get the word out about public policy issues that I am concerned about and about articles I write on my blog,” Surovell said.
Del. Albert Pollard, D-Lively, also uses Twitter to keep in touch with people. Many of his tweets are about his family or focus on day-to-day events instead of politics.
“In today’s world, I think the problem is that politicians aren’t humanized enough,” Pollard said.
“I felt like it was a good tool in order to help keep me human and keep in touch with friends, and supporters are largely friends.”
Even Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Gov. Bob McDonnell have Twitter accounts.
Cuccinelli uses Twitter to keep his followers updated on events he is attending, while McDonnell usually posts links to articles or news releases.
Some legislators who have Twitter accounts don’t use them. Delegates Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, and Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, have never tweeted at all.
Others use Twitter infrequently. Del. Dave Albo, R-Springfield, has tweeted 10 times, but not recently.
“I have a Twitter account but don’t know how to use it,” Albo said.
Virginia legislators on Twitter range in age from 26 to 75; their average age is 47. Del. James “Will” Morefield, R-North Tazewell, is the youngest tweeting lawmaker; Sen. Yvonne Miller, D-Norfolk, is the oldest.
“It just kind of seemed like a fun thing to do. I’m a little bit older, but I’m willing to try new things,” said Pollard, 42.
Of the legislators using Twitter, 11 are Democrats and 19 are Republicans. Although more Republican lawmakers use Twitter, Democrats have more than twice as many tweets (2,825) as the Republicans (1,020).
During a busy session, social networking might not be the first thing on a legislator’s mind. Cindy Rhodes, legislative aide to Del. Christopher Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, said Stolle doesn’t use Twitter during General Assembly sessions.
“He prefers to limit his distractions and focus on the debate and bills before him,” Rhodes said.
Many legislators operate their own accounts, but some are updated and maintained by their aides or other staff. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s account is almost always updated by his staff.
Twitter can be used in conjunction with other social networking sites like Facebook by changing the settings so the user’s tweets go directly to his or her profile.
“We connected my Twitter account to Facebook to further broaden the audience,” Deeds said.
When comparing the two services, some legislators have a preference, while others use both.
“I’d say they are both equally useful. They have different audiences and different advantages,” Surovell said.
Twitter can be used to directly communicate with constituents and supporters. Users can tweet directly to another user – this is called an “@ reply” and can be differentiated from other tweets because it starts with an @ symbol and the user’s name.
Of the 30 legislators who use Twitter, Deeds had the most communication with other users: 211 of his 891 tweets were @ replies to or mentions of other Twitter users.
But some legislators might find Twitter’s method of communicating with others frustrating, or, like Pollard, they just don’t receive a lot of replies from followers.
“Unlike Facebook, it’s not a tool where I get a lot of feedback, and that can be frustrating,” Pollard said. “It’s more like a one-way street, and I don’t like that.”
“I try to use social media to humanize me,” Pollard said. “And so it’s not as much about politics – obviously it is because I’m a politician, but I lead a normal life just like everybody else.”
Kelsey Radcliffe and Samantha Downing are journalism students at VCU and contributed this story through the Capital News Service.