Researchers from the University of Maryland who plodded through more than 6,000 Twitter postings by members of Congress have found - surprise! - that politicians spend most of their time on Twitter promoting themselves.
The study was designed to determine whether the social networking revolution, and specifically the arrival of Twitter, had opened a new era of dialogue between elected leaders and the public.
But the College Park team found that 80 percent of the postings fell into two categories: links to news articles and news releases, and status updates that chronicle the politician's latest trip to the sawmill or the supermarket.
Like this dispatch from Democrat Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii: "Just completed weightlifting workout at the Nuuanu Y." Or from Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa: "I will b intrvud on AgriTalk at 10amCST. Pls tune in."
The researchers found that members of Congress spent 7 percent of their time interacting with citizens.
"Twitter by its nature is a very self-absorbed service," said Jennifer Golbeck, lead researcher and assistant professor in the university's College of Information Studies. "Politicians are very self-important people."
The team reviewed every congressional Twitter post through February. They also reviewed postings in June, when Congress was in session, and in August, when it was not.
They concluded that Twitter has yet to fulfill the promise of bringing elected leaders closer to their constituents. A Web site called TweetCongress has promoted Twitter as a means "to get our men and women in Congress to open up and have a real conversation with us."
Launched in 2006, Twitter allows users to send succinct (no more than 140 characters) reports on their comings, goings and musings. Sixty-nine members of Congress had Twitter accounts by February. The number has since risen to 169.
The researchers just announced their findings -and hope to present them at an international conference on human-computer interaction in the spring.
Many Twitter postings read like very short press releases. We learn from Iowa's GOP Rep. Tom Latham, for example, that he is working to help Iowans as they contend with the flooding throughout the state. California Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, advises: "On Rachel Maddow right after this commercial break. Tune in!"
While few politicians have bared their souls on Twitter, some have nonetheless managed to tweet themselves into trouble.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican, caught flak in February when he posted: "Just landed in Baghdad," inadvertently posing a security risk for his congressional delegation. He drew criticism again in June for likening the tumult in Iran to Republican conflicts with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The researchers rate Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill the best tweeter in the Senate and the GOP's Rep. John Culberson of Texas tops in his chamber.
McCaskill has the second-most followers among congressional tweeters (more than 32,000), trailing Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who has more than 1.3 million. Her page is a compendium of personal replies to constituents and snippets of life that sound authentic. Here's one from earlier this month: "Yes @tigeranniemac that was me at Target in the soap aisle. You shoulda said hi. Was with my daughter Lily. We're very friendly."