Washington knows the power of Twitter. It's where Barack Obama announced his reelection bid and Mitt Romney declared his selection of Paul Ryan. It's used to win campaigns and win over constituents. It helped make Cory Booker a rock star and cost Anthony Weiner his congressional seat.
But Twitter has also allowed smart, interesting people from outside the Beltway to join the capital conversation, becoming friends with officials and journalists, connecting face-to-face in ways that are novel and potentially important.
Not too many years ago, if you wanted to become part of the Washington conversation you had to move here and maybe get an internship or a job. Even eight years ago, before Twitter was born, tools like Facebook and blogging never allowed for the real-time conversation and witty repartee that Twitter fosters and can be the basis for real relationships.
Consider how Twitter allowed two thirtysomethings to become voices in Washington. More importantly, it allowed them to fall in love.
@DukeStJournal and @Abba_KS were coming to the attention of Washington types—and each other—back in 2009. (They're reluctant to use their real names.) @DukeStJournal's smart comments about the financial crisis caught the eye of former George W. Bush press secretary Tony Fratto. "We hit it off pretty quickly," Fratto recalls. The two bonded over financial issues. After leaving government, Fratto founded one of Washington's hottest firms, Hamilton Place Strategies, which offers media, policy, and advocacy solutions and has Wall Street clients. As a CNBC regular, Fratto has a deep interest in financial issues. @DukeStJournal knew the markets. At the same time, @Abba_KS was getting noticed in Washington. She hailed from Kentucky, went to college in Ohio, and lived in North Carolina. A pianist and an entrepreneur, she's the CFO of a shoe retailer. They were funny, smart, and also sweet.
The two traded Tweets, moving to Twitter's private direct messages first about common interests like restaurants and then more intimately. "Non-public dialogue," she says this summer from their vacation together in the Pacific Northwest. @DukeStJournal began to visit her. "They're incredibly lovely," Fratto says.
When @DukeStJournal came to Washington a couple of years ago, Olivier Knox, now the chief Washington correspondent for Yahoo! News, met him for drinks at Johnny's Half Shell, a short walk from the U.S. Senate. Other reporters said hi to the man they knew as @DuketStJournal. (The name comes from "Doonesbury's" Uncle Duke, a thinly veiled version of the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. @DukeStJournal used the "Doonesbury" cartoon as his avatar.)
Their romance hasn't been without hard times. Earlier this year @Abba_KS was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer and has been battling through it, @DukeStJournal at her side. "I hope I glow after all this nuclear medicine. Neon is in this season," she tweeted on Tuesday with typical good humor. The couple are on track for a November wedding and Fratto and Knox and others will be there.
If you've spent time on Twitter, you know that it can be explosive. This summer it made Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis a force because of her filibuster of an abortion bill. The cable networks didn't carry her Austin oration from the floor but Twitter filled the vacuum. The seven-year-old messaging service turned Sharknado into America's guilty pleasure. But Twitter is also a frustrating mixture of the banal and the self-promoting, certainly in Washington where journalists link to their articles, hawking them shamelessly. (Me included.) But it can also be a place where persons offer razor-sharp opinions honed by the medium's brevity. The best Twitterers mix the serious and the silly, the public and the private. Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., tweeted his listening to Jay Z's new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail. Sen. Claire McCaskill made a sly comment about The Washington Post on Tuesday. "Washington Post reporters today?" the senator chirped. "Busy slipping Kindles into their pockets and purses." It's this mix of high and low that drew the Beltway to @DukeStJournal and @Abba_KS. But besides seeing smarts, they also saw a lack of artifice. "You pick the people you want to be your neighbors," @Abba_KS says.
One of those neighbors is Laura Methvin, an attorney and musician in Tallahassee, Fla. @WeeLaura comments on everything from her disdain for George W. Bush to her fondness for Mr. Bates on Downton Abbey and opines on any number of indie bands. (Nada Surf, yes; Vampire Weekend, no.) Along the way she met Fratto who stopped in to see her when he was in Tallahassee. "I call Tony my Republican friend," she says. Fratto notes that they don't think alike when it comes to politics but says they've built their relationship on "a hundred other things."
Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post saw this new world of relationships when she was at Time magazine. On the Swampland politics section of Time.com she noticed a commenter by the name of Pourmecoffee who regularly had the sharpest observations. Tumulty, a respected Washington reporter who quickly adapted to the digital world, thought this was a nom de plume for a Beltway insider. (He's not and savors his anonymity.) She invited him to the Post newsroom. "He was like this cult figure," Tumulty recalls. They've kept in touch, with her even e-mailing him from the Vatican where statues of giant birds reminded her of his tweet about creepy porcelain figures at his mother-in-law's house.
Twitter hasn't just forged relationships inside the Beltway but also job opportunities. Chris Geidner was a lawyer in Ohio with a blog, Law Dork, and he used Twitter to fan his work. Journalists and legal scholars retweeted him. It helped that he took up Twitter the day that the California state Supreme Court heard the challenge to Proposition 8. With his interest in gay legal issues, it was the perfect meeting of man and subject. When he came to Washington in 2009 he was able to get a job with Metro Weekly, a gay newspaper here. From there his work caught the attention of BuzzFeed, where he's a political and legal reporter. All the while Twitter helped him make a name for himself. Geidner notes that re-tweets by prominent people in his world, such as SCOTUSblog's Tom Goldstein and George Washington University legal scholar Orin Kerr, gave him a validation and credibility that helped in the White House briefing room. "Twitter was so essential," he recalls.
That was also the case for Tony Lee , a graduate of Berkeley Law at the University of California, who moved to Washington in 2009. The conservative's sharp tweets about Sarah Palin (he thinks the political class of both parties has unfairly trashed her) and his smart coverage of sports propelled his notoriety. He says he was "reluctantly dragged onto Twitter and it turns out it was one of the best things I've ever done." Now he writes for Breitbart News. It "absolutely goes without question I wouldn't have whatever voice I have in the so-called conversation and opportunity to express my views on a broader scale without Twitter."
In her work as vice president for social media at AARP, Tammy Gordon sees this phenomenon in her work and her own life. "Connections start on Twitter and move to e-mail," she notes. "Facebook is your social network. Twitter is based on interests who you have in common with." When looking for social-media types to be in the mix at Tuesday's AARP-sponsored mayoral debate in New York City, she chose social-media denizens. "In some ways they've become more influential than the reporters there," says Gordon, considered a social-media star in Washington. She describes the social-media world as "brackish waters" between media and journalism. "We're in this place where average citizens can have important followings."
What's interesting is how few of the outside-the-Beltway Twitterati want anything. Social media has become an increasingly self-promotional tool, a place to sell oneself. "I can't believe it when I get an e-mail asking me to 'like' a journalist's fan page," says Knox of Yahoo! News. But in the case of @DukeStJournal and @Abba_KS, they weren't looking for a government contract or to repeal a regulation. It's the opposite of This Town, the much discussed book on the "gilded capital." And maybe that makes it easier for Washington to return the favor. When they get married this fall in Atlanta, celebrating their union and pushing ahead in their fight against her cancer, their Beltway friends will be there. Known for his dry wit in the White House briefing room and around D.C., Knox jokes he needs to convince his spouse that it's worth the haul to attend the wedding of his "semi-imaginary" friends. Knox allows that he and his wife met through an online ad back in Ye Olden Times, which should make the Twitter sell easier: "Who would have thought the Washington wedding of the year would be in Atlanta?"
This article appears in the August 8, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.