#SOTU Scored 238 “Mileys” and Nobody Even Knew

Twitter is becoming an increasingly event-driven medium. People are moved to talk about things that are happening around them in real time, and they use Twitter to share their thoughts. When it is an event as politically-charged and widely anticipated as the State of the Union, we should just expect people on Twitter to go haywire, the number of issues that are talked about to skyrocket, and the amount of jokes made to be incalculable.

Using data from Topsy Pro, we analyzed how people were tweeting leading up to and during the State of the Union, and identified some interesting patterns.

Twitter users will mock you if you ask them about the political issues they care about. Surveys sent out via email blasts are a more effective way of taking your online audience’s temperature on specific topics. Asking people what they want to hear from their President via Twitter is a hallmark of democracy in the age of new media. Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Twitter as a medium is that it allows elected officials to directly engage with their constituencies about certain issues in a clear, succinct manner. That said, there is a right way for electeds and political organizations to do this without getting inundated with jokes and mockery that are the opposite of what they are trying to achieve. It is crucial for political entities to remember that what pundits refer to as ‘the Twittersphere’ is actually made up of countless human ideologies and perspectives, and that there are just as many political puns and witticisms that can be made in 140 characters. So, instead of linking to a survey about issues they would like to hear the President discuss during the State of the Union that people on Twitter can simply ignore, ask for Twitter users to retweet a call to action or statement if they agree. Political communicators should consider distributing surveys via email blasts only, not Twitter — that way, they are polling their own audience whose membership has already opted in to their political party, ideas, and opinions.

As with the Super Bowl or the finale of a popular TV show, people want to comment on political events while they are happening. Conversation on Twitter remained stilted until the event began.

As Ethan Zuckerman used nanoKardashians to measure Google search volume, and inspired by a tweet from Steve Koczela, we chose to use Miley Cyrus for conversation on Twitter. So, at any time on Tuesday, how did conversation via the #SOTU hashtag compare to conversation about Miley?

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It was not until 4:00pm EST that the volume of conversation on the #SOTU hashtag was any greater than double that devoted to Miley Cyrus (or 2.0 Mileys). During the speech, #SOTU reached its peak of 238.0 Mileys.

Even with the substantive content of the speech leaked, one of the highlights of the political calendar was not the focus of sizable anticipation online. People wanted to share their thoughts on State of the Union as it happened.

People did care about the content of the President’s speech, and Twitter provided them with an opportunity to opine on it (as well as Speaker Boehner’s skin tone). Despite complaints to the contrary, the President’s priorities were reflected on Twitter. The chart below shows the nine most talked about themes of the night, and their share of the conversation over the course of the State of the Union.

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President Obama’s role as a convener of Twitter conversation is demonstrated by this, as his speech’s themes moved the needle on what people were talking about. However, most of this discussion was short-lived — the topics of health care, climate change, and minimum wage saw sudden peaks and troughs in volume of conversation. There were, however, some themes with more resilience. The President’s brief focus on women’s issues and mention of Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg continued to dominate the conversation even after the end of the speech. Additionally, there were more than 55,000 tweets during the speech that mentioned “women” with the hashtag #SOTU.

Blog Post Image 3While many of the policy issues in President Obama’s speech appeared and swiftly disappeared, the volume of jokes remained steady throughout the night. Speaker Boehner, who loomed over the President’s shoulder throughout the event not uttering a word, was a significant topic of conversation, as were the gesticulations and facial expressions of his fellow Republicans when the camera cut to them listening to the President. In fact, 6,000 tweets mentioned Speaker Boehner’s face and his radiant complexion.

As evidenced by the 2012 Presidential Debates as well as the State of the Union, Twitter has an insatiable appetite for the “zinger” — the single comment, gesture, expression, behavior, or action that is so awkward and/or unexpected that it is all that social media users wish to talk about. Just as “binders full of women” and “horses and bayonets” entered the online zeitgeist, so did lines and themes from the 2014 State of the Union — during the speech, more tweets referenced the President’s Mad Men line than did energy policy.

How to communicate online about politics will continue to be a topic of much debate. However, as far as people on Twitter are concerned, political events like the State of the Union are now also cultural events, a chance to share publically the comments and asides that were previously confined to the living room. They present an opportunity for public officials to not only identify what issues and “zingers” resonate best with voters, but also show how to reach them.

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