Cory Booker is only the fourth African American ever to be elected to the U. S. Senate, and he’ll soon be the sole elected black in the ’13 chamber. But the real news is that he’s poised to make history as the first social media senator.
This is quite significant, in ways that will only become clear over time.
Booker, the lame-duck mayor of Newark, has already tweeted three times today. At 1:20 a.m., he said that his deceased dad is watching over him. At 7 a.m., he retweeted a tweeter who hailed him as New Jersey’s first bald senator (“Haven’t fact-checked this,” Booker joked, “but who hairs?”). At 8 a.m., he quoted a line from novelist Toni Morrison, apparently finding it inspirational (“You wanna fly, you got to give up the s–t that weighs you down”). Booker has now tweeted 31,837 times (although he will probably have tweeted more by the time I finish this piece).
Those of you unfamiliar with Twitter should know that 31,837 tweets is an astronomical total – almost as daunting as the number of people who track his tweets. When I started this piece a few minutes ago, he had 1,432,809 followers. As I finish this paragraph, he has 24 more. His far-flung Twitter fan base is roughly five times larger than the entire population of the city he serves. You have to wonder how he has time to govern, given how often he’s working his fingers.
He uses Twitter to connect with constituents (when a city resident tweeted him to complain that a streetlight seemed dangerously crooked, he replied that he was “on it”). He charts his moods (quoting Camus: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer”) and dispenses self-help tips (from yesterday’s 13-tweet tally: “May we help more than we hurt, may we seek to understand more than be understood and may we love more than we judge”). He responds to just about everyone who ever mentions his name. He tallies every single ribbon cutting. He’s a pithy schmoozer, unapologetically so, even when his pith partner turns out to be a stripper.
This guy is Politician 2.0, a whole new paradigm of brand management. Either this guy has admirably supplanted Ronald Reagan as The Great Communicator, or he’s pioneering new frontiers of self-aggrandizing narcissism – doling it out 140 characters at a time. Of course, his own explanation is more benign. His goal, he recently told a social media conference, is “telling my truth to the world.” And, thanks to social media, we are “all syndicators of information. We are all media outlets.”
We are all media outlets…Now we’re getting to the crux of the issue.
There once was a time, especially pre-Twitter, when politicians were compelled to communicate with the public through the filter of the press. Today, more than ever before, they can bypass the press and speak unfiltered. The Twitter feed @corybooker is whatever he wants to say, minus the pesky Fourth Estate analysis. In the months ahead, he can wax pithy on a Senate issue and not worry about whether The New York Times or The Star Ledger paper in Newark will pick up his comments. Heck, a lot more people will see his tweets than read The Times or Star Ledger. Heck, those papers will probably quote some of his tweets.
And he knows it. He said last year that, thanks to Twitter, “I now have much more control over the media than I did before, because I’ve got traditional media that’s following my tweets. I can break news on my Twitter account. I can shape news on my Twitter account. Just by having that level of having over one-whatever million people following me is a bigger audience than many traditional media outlets.”
Booker’s key remark: “I can shape news on my Twitter account.” Which prompts me to wonder what kind of newbie senator he will be. A workhorse like Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and Al Franken (all of whom eschewed the limelight, opting instead to quietly learn the ropes) – or a showhorse who ignores the Senate’s parliamentary arcana, and instead uses Twitter to “shape news” that’s mostly about himself?
The latter is more likely – not just because he has to run in ’14 for a full six-year term (self-publicity will be crucial), but because, by instinct and temperament, he’s all about the branding.
Which reminds me: In the time it took me to write this piece, he got 100 new followers.