For those who haven’t been following a little back and forth taking place on the social networking site Twitter, let me bring you up to speed. A band of conservative Twitter users have been organizing around a project started by Michael Patrick Leahy called Top Conservatives on Twitter or #TCOT (On twitter # is used to signify a hashtag to organize discussions). This organizing is based around a list that counts how many Twitter followers conservatives have ranking them on the #TCOT Web site. All of us participating are encouraged to follow others on the list giving those users who participate in this project an easy way to gain readership.
Some use the site simply as a vehicle to promote their accounts, their blogs or their messages. Many participate in discussions, make friends, and recently Leahy and others began encouraging the creation of projects where #TCOT users organize into small groups and accomplish tasks. Additionally a Web site modeled after the Drudge Report follows the list and pushes news.
Yesterday something took place that was a bit jarring to several members on the list and myself. Leahy weighed in on the RNC chair race by scorning current chairman Mike Duncan and declaring he should withdraw from the race. In his blog post Leahy made frequent mention of #TCOT and its ranks. What most startled myself and some others was the following:
“I speak only for myself, but as co-founder of #TCOT I can say with complete certainty that my views represent the vast majority of the #TCOT community.”
Leahy’s actions to promote the article, putting it as a giant header on TCOTreport.com and filling the #TCOT discussion with notes of Duncan’s ineptitude followed. Leahy also appeared to suggest on Twitter that Duncan’s lack of response to his posting or appearance on #TCOT was further evidence he should withdraw. This appeared like a unilateral action by Leahy using the list as leverage to further his agenda.
Later that night it was revealed on The American Resolve that this statement was actually supported in #TCOT conference calls with a few members of the list. I did not hear an exact number of participants on these calls but have been lead to believe only a handful of the 1500+ on the list were engaged.
Yesterday I voiced my concern to Leahy on Twitter. Because the site is a built around short communication it was difficult to express them fully. I am providing my thoughts below to hopefully continue a discussion that was started and continues with other #TCOT members. I did want to add that this is not an attack on Leahy who should be applauded for his efforts to bring all of us together on Twitter. Also this is by no means an endorsement of Mike Duncan.
First and foremost I believe it is important to consider just what #TCOT is. When I signed up the name appeared self explanatory; Top Conservatives on Twitter. I gleaned there were only two ideology’s; those on the list were conservative and they agreed promoting technology and the use of the Internet to the Republican Party was imperative. Beyond that the list appeared to be a service where following conservatives on the list could lead to more followers for yourself.
There was nothing to suggest the list would subscribe users to any one politician or ideological camp within conservatism. Additionally there was nothing to suggest being a part of this list would lead to your name being leverage to further anyone’s career or make demands of career politicians. There is a fundamental issue to address here. Is #TCOT simply a list owned and operated by Leahy for his own promotion and the aggregation of his ideas or is it a grassroots organizing tool that promotes a broad set of principals but does not subscribe to just one ideological viewpoint or candidate with Leahy simply managing and promoting discussion?
Leahy was correct to say he only spoke for himself in the blog post but that clarification was followed by a suggestion that a “vast majority” shared his beliefs. His use of TCOTreport.com to promote that post only heightened this perception. Leahy finally leveraged the list later by using it to suggest that Mr. Duncan should step aside because he was not addressing #TCOT or his post.
I personally was appalled to find #TCOT being so directly associated with a call to the RNC leader to withdraw from the race and suggestions that he was incompetent.
Some might look to this specific instance and see it as a trivial issue. Mike Duncan is an easy whipping boy and Leahy has every right to express his opinion; I am not suggesting otherwise. What I am suggesting is that #TCOT should never be used to take a stand during internal party debates or to endorse any one specific policy, candidate or ideological position other than conservatism as a whole and the use of technology. I believe addressing this now and clarifying the purpose and use of the list is important.
How would members feel if their name were leveraged for a candidate they do not support during the presidential primaries or to find Leahy using the list to demand someone they support drop out of the race? Additionally how would we feel if #TCOT became engaged in abhorrent political attacks like those leveraged by MoveOn.org or become a place that collectively legitimizes the kind of radical and vile sentiments associated with sites like DailyKos?
This issue is a big deal not because of Mike Duncan but because of what it represents and where it could take us in the future.
Second I cannot shake the memories of this last election or ignore the lessons we may not be learning. A very large number of technology enthusiasts gave their support willingly to Senator Barack Obama simply because he uttered the words “network neutrality.” He offered no definitive plan on how to achieve the goal, no real understanding of the issue; he just had to utter the words or suggest he would support “science” and many followed him blindly. We cannot just support the candidate who best utilizes the Internet for their campaign; it would be disasterous to take the Democratic route and base their leadership on Facebook followers and empty promises.
Finally a commitment to technology in politics cannot be evident only through the use of one tool such as Twitter or Facebook. A candidate or leaders absence in one platform is not evidence they are not engaged throughout the Internet. Leahy appeared to be suggesting that yesterday on Twitter.
This point will become more important as candidates are fielded for various elections in the next year and then the 2010 midterm elections. I have a fear that those candidates who embrace specific social networking platforms like Twitter may be the only ones promoted. Just as Leahy attacked Duncan I fear we will find similar attacks on other candidates who do not share Leahy and a minority of users specific vision of the world. We will no doubt be asked for financial and grassroots support of candidates who are perceived to be “engaged” and find their opponents regularly reviled. I cannot even imagine bypassing a competent and experienced leader simply because they don’t have the time or inclination to get on Twitter or build an iPhone application.
Once again this is not an indictment of Leahy or a declaration of support for Duncan, those are not the issues. Instead I hope this is a part of a much larger conversation about how we move forward and how we will organize and maintain a disciplined, principled and vibrant community.