It was the autumn of 1995. I was in the 7th grade, and due to a growth spurt, I was due for a new winter coat. The new coat was a compromise between my mom’s priorities and my own: affordable, but blue (my favorite color). When the weather cooled, my classmates started to come to school in a variety of coats; my blue coat was unremarkable. Then, one day, someone showed up in a Starter jacket. Over the next few weeks, Starter jackets started popping up all over the classroom until it was the majority jacket. And my coat stood out because it was different. My new blue coat was, in fact, just one more confirmation of my breathtaking lack of coolness.
A typical Starter jacket
To me, those Starter jackets appeared out of nowhere. As an uncool 13 year old, I did not yet understand how fashion trends spread, and my exposure to clothing was limited (I didn’t go shopping often & had never seen a Starter jacket in a store). So, at the time, I did not understand how everyone else in class knew that these jackets were cool to wear, nor did I understand how they knew where to get one. I saw the trend spread and felt the shame of being on the outside, but did not see any path to participating. By the time I figured it out, my peers had moved on to the next fad.
On Twitter, proud declarations of “I voted!” coupled with criticism of those who have not voted is the equivalent of my 7th grade class jumping on the Starter jacket trend. The tweeting voters in this case are part of the in-crowd, and their vote-related tweets are “cool signifiers.” To these tweeters, there is no excuse for not participating in an election.
The tweeting voters tweet proudly on election day. But, from what I’ve seen, they tweet about voting ONLY on election day. These tweets are a signal to other tweeting voters in the way that Starter jackets were a signal to in-crowd 7th graders. The signal says, “We’re cool; we’re good; we’re in-the-know.” The signal deliberately chastises people who are left out. The message to those says, “You’re not one of us; you’re lesser; you’re other.”
But, to those on the outside, who are facing barriers to voting that are evidently unfathomable to tweeting voters, the proliferation of voting tweets and photos of “I voted” stickers can seem to come out of nowhere. And, on election day, it’s frequently too late for someone on the outside to catch up.
That leads to sentiments like this:
And it’s not just on Twitter:
I understand why we play the “cool” card (if you don’t, check out C.S. Lewis’ essay, “The Inner Ring,” which explains it better than I can). And, in terms of fashion trends, nerd-culture references, and whatever other in-group we may be a member of, the cool signifiers can be benign (except, perhaps, when adolescents are involved). But in regards to voting, using “I voted!” as a cool signifier with the corresponding rejection of those who have not voted, is unpardonable and counterproductive.
I understand that many of these tweeting voters are trying to encourage their followers to “get out the vote.” But, on election day, most of the crucial voting activities are already complete (registration, making time to vote, researching the candidates). Admonishing others to vote on election day is only acting as a signal to the in-crowd (those who have already voted/have plans to vote). To those who face barriers to voting, that signal is flipped to the “You’re not one of us; you’re lesser; you’re other” message. It’s demoralizing. It’s negative. It does not advance your cause. It creates another barrier to that person for future election days.
So, what would be a productive way to use Twitter to encourage people to vote? For starters, it requires each of us to identify our Twitter audience and then identify the realistic barriers that members of that specifice audience are likely to face. Only then can we develop a communications plan that addresses these barriers and provides timely and helpful information and encouragement to our specific audiences. If this sounds time-consuming, that’s because it is. But if you’re sincerely passionate about “getting out the vote,” that’s what it takes.