Social media may knock conventions off-script

Party officials test out the stage for the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.

Story highlights

  • Twitter, in particular, will be the wild card this year in Tampa and Charlotte
  • Social media offers the chance that the conventions will go off-script
  • Former McCain adviser predicts "Bitter Twitter campaign"
Next week, 15,000 journalists will join thousands of delegates, operatives, lobbyists and party activists for the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, to be followed a week later by the Democrats' convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The party nominating conventions long ago stopped being about actual deliberation over the nominee or party platform and instead have become pre-packaged, made-for-TV events designed to showcase each nominee to a nightly audience that may number close to 20 million people.
Twitter may have other plans, however. This year, social media could be the skunk at the garden party.
2012 is the year that digital communications finally became mainstream for politicos. I remember attending the 2004 Democratic convention when the big news -- maybe the only news! -- was that the Democrats had decided to give press credentials to bloggers. I sat with them up in the nosebleed section of the Boston Garden and watched delegates and politicians march up like tourists to snap photos of the strange new animals in the zoo.
Micah Sifry
I also saw TV commentator Jeff Greenfield tell his producers there was no way he was going to stand up there with the bloggers during the evening keynote speeches when everyone knew the real action was on the floor of the hall. Of course, now everyone is a blogger, and Greenfield (@greenfield64) tweets constantly.
Twitter, in particular, will be the wild card in Tampa and Charlotte. During the last round of conventions in 2008, when the communications service was barely 2 years old, Twitter was not yet the darling of the journo-political complex. Now, the "chattering class" has become the tweeting class.
Now, instead of the "Gang of 500" political journalists celebrated by Time and MSNBC commentator Mark Halperin as the ultimate Beltway insiders, we have the gaggle of 5,000 who all follow the candidates and each other, engaging in daily sniping via hashtag. Now, no gaffe goes unreported.
As former McCain adviser Mark MacKinnon recently told Politico, "This election may be remembered as the Bitter Twitter campaign. ... We are likely to see the next (few) months as a furious and relentless exchange of messages that aren't much longer or deeper than 140 characters."
Something like this happened in December, when a comment by Mitt Romney challenging Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet was glossed over in the debate hall. But when producers at ABC, which hosted the event, noticed the topic blowing up on Twitter, they decided to emphasize it in the debate sum-up, and it soon made headlines elsewhere.
The party conventions can only intensify this peacocking behavior. They're like high school status competitions conducted on old-fashioned expense accounts, where news organizations compete to show off who has the bigger sky box and party hacks obsess over invites to fancy parties.
Meanwhile, the audience watching on TV isn't a passive one anymore. Many of us will be online during the big speeches, and we'll be tweeting and retweeting, too. What this means is there will be a lot more noise created, but there's also the chance that the convention, like Romney's Iowa debate bet, will go off-script.
In other words, for once the conventions might actually be interesting.