By Patrick Johnson, The Republican
March 19, 2010, 5:10PM
AMHERST - Not long after her April 2008 election to the Amherst School Committee, Catherine A. Sanderson thought she’d create a simple, little blog to keep voters informed about what the committee was doing and to gain voter feed back.
“Those were my noble goals,” she said of the origin of her blog, myschoolcommitteeblog.blogspot.com.
In a matter of months, her simple, little blog grew and grew to the point of becoming neither simple nor little.
Her two to three posts per month grew to as many as 20, the monthly visitors tally reached as high as 10,000, and individual posts could generate as many as 150 reader comments.
It's become a lot of work, but Sanderson said the blog has more than accomplished its original purpose. “I ran on a platform of more communication and more transparency,” Sanderson said. “It’s hard to not communicate and not be transparent when you’re on a blog telling people, ‘Here is how I am going to vote and why.’”
Sanderson is one of many politicians at the local, state and federal levels who are realizing the importance of using new media to connect with the voters.
The late media critic A.J. Liebling once famously declared, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” But the abundance of simple blogging platforms, such as Wordpress or Google’s Blogger, and social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, make it so anyone can be their own publisher.
“There’s no filter,” said Westfield Mayor Daniel Knapik, who maintains Facebook and Twitter accounts. “People can get their message out to people exactly as they intend without it being altered, shortened or taken out of context.”
Across the state, politicians at every level and party are using social media to schmooze with voters and constituents alike.
“I use (Facebook) to keep in touch with friends and constituents. Hopefully, they are the same thing,” said Rep. Donald F. Humason Jr., R-Westfield.
Other local politicians doubling as bloggers include Northampton City Councilor Angela Plassman and Holyoke City Councilors Kevin Jourdain and Rebecca Lisi.
Sanderson said her efforts to reach voters directly has not been free from critics. There are some people who like her blog and some who hate it, she said.
Entrenched in the “hate it” camp, she said, are her husband, who complains it is too time consuming, and some of her School Committee colleagues.
“There are people on the committee who think it gives me a disproportionate amount of attention. That is 100 percent true,” she said.
If they want more attention, they should start their own blogs, she said. “Anyone can do it.”
In the same way, the ease of conveying information to your own personal network of friends, fans and followers makes Facebook and Twitter a natural among politicians at all levels of government and on both sides of the aisle.
In Massachusetts, Scott P. Brown has only been a senator for a little more than a month, but he's tops among Bay State politicians in terms of social networking. Brown's Facebook page has attracted 211,00 "fans", and his number of followers on Twitter stands at 22,000.
No one else is even close. Sen. John F. Kerry, for example, logs in with 9,000 Facebook fans and 4,900 Twitter followers.
Gov. Deval L. Patrick has nearly 5,000 friends and over 12,000 fans on Facebook and 10,000 Twitter followers. That may not seem like much compared to Brown, but it's more than any of his opponents in the upcoming gubernatorial race.
A report issued in February by the Congressional Research Service concluded that members of Congress are rapidly and avidly taking to forms of social media that did not exist 15 years ago. The advantages for each are the distribution speed (immediate) and cost (minimal).
Not coincidentally, the report notes, bulk mailings from Congress have dropped by 50 percent during this time.
Recent surveys have 205 of 538 members of Congress on Twitter accounts and 349 on Facebook.
Among members of Congress, one study noted usage varied greatly. During a two-month study, 16 congressmen tweeted at least 100 times in a 61-day span, including one who alone tallied 290.
But there were also several other members of Congress who had few if any tweets. That would probably include Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, D-Newton, who on June 18 posted his first and presumably last tweet: “I have one ambition: to retire before it becomes essential to tweet.”
That day may be drawing nearer and nearer.
With the exception of U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester, every member of the Massachusetts delegation has a Facebook page, but just five of the 12 are on Twitter, and only two, Brown and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., he of @Markeymemo, post with anything approaching regularity.
Among state legislators, those from Western Massachusetts have been slow to embrace Twitter, said state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield.
Downing, who has 142 followers and tweets regularly, said Twitter and Facebook are becoming essential tools for politicians.
Facebook is great for organizing supporters, rallies and events, while Twitter specializes in getting messages to supporters very quickly. Traditional means - including press releases, interviews with the press, and public appearances - are still important, he said.
“It’s not about bypassing the media; it’s about supplementing it,” he said.
But effective use of social media can be enough to boost a candidate over the top, he said. Downing cited how Brown, during the special Senate election, was posting on Twitter and Facebook constantly, and by doing so helped create a sense of momentum among voters that carried him to victory.
The Brown campaign, and even President Obama’s successful run at the White House, show “just how powerful the social media can be if you harness it,” Downing said.
Agawam state Rep. Rosemary Sandlin recently announced her campaign for re-election via Twitter and Facebook.
Although she called herself a novice at each, she sees both as good ways to connect with voters.
“I’m learning more and more about Facebook. It’s a slow process. Twitter is my next mountain to climb,” she said.
Humason said he logs onto Facebook once or twice a week, but he draws the line at Twitter.
He said he is not so full of himself that he believes people need to know exactly what he is doing at any given moment.
Although he has a Blackberry and is theoretically capable of walking and texting at the same time, Humason said he has no desire to start lest he walk face first into a wall at the Statehouse.
Humason also questioned whether all this access to politicians through social media actually creates more transparency.
“Why are we trying to be transparent by twittering all the time?” he asked “Why don’t we do something that’s really transparent?”
For starters, he said, the Legislature should discuss the budget out in the open and stop using parliamentary tricks such as scheduling votes late into the night, he said.
Also leery of social media is state Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst. Although she represents one of the most Internet-savvy sections of the region, if not the state, Story said she places little stock in the social media. She is neither on Facebook nor Twitter, and has no plans to be.
“I don’t think it’s necessary and in many cases a complete waste of time,” she said. “I’m in meetings with people who are texting all the time. It’s annoying and rude.”
To those who say Story is inaccessible, she says, “My telephone number is in the phone book, and it’s in the newspaper.”
That’s her home number, she pointed out, not her regional office. She said when people reach her at home, they usually apologize as if they got through to her by mistake. “I have to say ‘No, this is the right number,’” she said.
Story said she prefers to do her social networking the traditional way: by actually going out and socializing with people.
“I like to go to events. I like to talk to people,” she said. “I see people in Stop & Shop and talk to them.”
Story said she even likes to talk to reporters.
“You’re the second one I’ve talked to today,” she said during a recent telephone call to her home.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.