In January 2010 there were just 111 MPs using Twitter. Fast forward five years and there are now over 450 using (or having created Twitter handles on) the site. It's almost inconceivable by the end of the next Parliament that an MP won't be on Twitter - it has unquestionably become the most important new tool in the armoury of the modern, savvy MP. That's why this week lobbying agency Westminster PA launched the inaugural Political Twitter Awards to celebrate the best (and yes, the worst) of MPs on the social media site. The awards will celebrate those MPs who engage local people best, those whose Tweets have driven the news agenda and of course we'll poke a bit of fun at those who managed to get it oh so wrong as well.
Twitter is now one of the most important ways for MPs to engage the public - the ability to communicate in quick, bite-sized bursts lends the forum an appeal to the time-strapped MP. However, our own experience - in the process of short-listing MPs for each of the categories we've spent hour upon hour reading through the Twitter feeds of MPs - there are just as many elected representatives getting it wrong as there are getting it right.
So firstly, where are they going wrong? First and foremost, despite being primarily a social networking site, many MPs simply don't engage their followers, preferring instead to broadcast the minutiae of their diary engagements in a spirit of 'look how much I'm doing' Secondly, Twitter is chance for MPs to show their human sides. Yet many engage in petty point scoring that is too often neither clever nor funny. When the ruling political classes are getting clobbered by the smaller parties, precisely because the old politics is not working, you'd think Twitter would be the perfect medium to deploy a bit of sparkle and wit. Finally, the spammers: some MP's accounts feel like an RSS feed of party press releases, which may well be because they are. Although an MP may feel that they are ticking the Twitter box when Retweeting their tenth infographic of the day, I'm not convinced their followers will be that impressed.
However, there are just as many MPs who are doing a great job on Twitter. Take the Constituency Tweeter of the Year category - awarded to the Parliamentarian who engages with their home constituency most effectively. On the shortlist, amongst others, are Stella Creasy, Andrew Percy and Julian Huppert, all of whom display a genuine enthusiasm for home sweet home, and take every opportunity to Tweet about it often in an engaging way. We will also be picking out the most influential Tweet of 2014. Baroness Warsi's resignation and David Ward's controversial tweet about Palestine both make it onto our shortlist for the way they drove the traditional news agenda. We will also be awarding one lucky MP with the selfie of the year award. You can see Nick Clegg's entry here, shortlisted primarily for the reaction of the babe in arms to the clearly scintillating presence of the DPM. And there's the gaffe of the year which Emily Thornberry is hot favorite to win with her infamous "Image from #Rochester".
The aim of these awards is simple: we want to highlight best-practice, and mildly shame the gaffes and mishaps that make Twitter what is it. It's fun and a bit frivolous for sure, but there's a serious point behind this. For democracy to function, representatives must be visible, and by embracing new(ish) technology such as Twitter MPs have an unprecedented opportunity to engage with an often disenfranchised electorate. We want to celebrate those MPs who are using the site for what is intended for: personal communication, and effective and engaging broadcasting. We'll be announcing the winners soon at www.politicaltwitterawards.com. Watch this space.