That White House-Twitter event was most engaging when Obama was engaged isn't surprising. That's the nature of Twitter, the platform. And it's what Twitter, as a company, used, along with the White House, to try to win the event.
Twitter hand-picked eight "curators" to help drive the conversation. At first glance, they aren't necessarily high-powered tweeters. The most followed among them, Iowa-based Economist blogger Will Wilkinson (and recent Atlantic contributor), has about 4,200 followers. The least followed, a rising UNC senior and former Daily Tar Heel editor-in-chief, has 500. In between were an Illinois professor, an editorial page editor at the New Hampshire Union Leader, and an online content producer for California's North County Times. And, as mentioned, the White House invited a few dozen tweeters to attend a contemporaneous "Tweetup," or in-person gathering of Twitter users.
In some cases, participants weren't quite sure why they were selected. Times Picayune business editor Kim Quillen was surprised, she says, when she was approached by Twitter last week to act as a curator. "Gee," she recalls thinking, "I'm not really huge in the Twitter sphere." (Follower count: 1,100.) But Twitter offered Quillen an explanation, she says. "One thing that they complimented me on was that I was kind of a friendly presence. I wasn't picking fights with anyone." More than that, "they said that they were looking to reach outside the Beltway, to people who were communicating through Twitter on the economy, had a decent number of followers, and were exhibiting, I guess, good Twitter dynamics -- retweeting to people, interacting, and engaging."
In other cases, digital voices plucked out of the crowd to take part in the event had a good idea why that happened. One Tweetup invitee, the California-based Cheryl Contee, co-founded Jack & Jill Politics, a well-known blog offering "a black bourgeoisie perspective on U.S. politics," as well as a digital strategy firm. "They are consciously inviting people like me," she says. That is, "e-influentials, people with Twitter following, folks that have been supportive." Contee goes on. "It's a way to raise the profile organically, in a way that's natural to the medium." She and her co-blogger, Baratunde Thurston, were early supporters of the '08 Obama campaign, says Contee. "It's natural and sensible for them to continue that relationship. And we'd like to continue that relationship," she says with a laugh.
How, exactly, do you go about measuring online influence? There are ad hoc ways, like simply knowing which bloggers are high-profile. But there's a developing science to it -- measuring not simply follower counts, but the frequency of online postings, the reach of blog comments, and more. "Not every retweet is created equal," says SocialSphere's Chavez, a truth evident to anyone who has ever had, says, two prominent bloggers retweet links to your content, only to have one produce a huge influx of hits and the other nothing. Those tweeters' followers make judgments about their judgment about the social web. And that influence can be parsed. NBC's Chuck Todd, @chucktodd, might be hugely influential when it comes to politics, says Chavez, and much less so when it comes to another passion, college football. Having granular data of the sort held by Twitter Inc. just might be a boon when it comes to understanding the nuances of influence.