House Republicans vie for followers, video views in New Media Challenge

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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This week, 106 members of Congress will take to YouTube, posting videos and trying to boost their page views. The goal: To become one of the top 96 who will make it into the bracket and go on to compete in the House Republican Conference New Media Challenge.

This is the second year that the House Republican Conference is holding the contest, which pits House Republicans against each other in single-elimination, March madness-style competition to see who can get the largest number of Twitter followers, the most “likes” on Facebook, and views on YouTube videos.

The goal of the contest, which was started last year by House Republican Conference Vice Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, is to get members to use social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to more effectively engage with constituents and each other. In addition, the contest serves as an incubator for trying out new and innovative ways to use new media.

“As we learned with last year’s challenge, a little friendly competition goes a long way to helping members break out of the mold, and get even more creative online,” said McMorris Rodgers.

The first elimination challenge, which will narrow the 106 entrants down to 96, who will be sorted into a 64-person championship bracket, and a 32-person bronze bracket, is entirely focused on YouTube. Members must post videos all week, and the 96 people with the most page views will move on.

Members are taking different approaches to the competition.

Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas, a freshman, says his goal is to “get some video to go viral.”

At the moment though, he said, they’re scraping together what they can. “It kind of snuck up on me,” he said. “We’re trying to just put what we’ve got right now.”

So, he says, at the moment his team is posting stuff from committee hearings and speeches. But Farenthold doesn’t think this will be enough.

“While I try to be interesting, unless I say something really stupid, that’s not going to go viral,” he said. He hopes to actually produce some videos going forward in the contest.

Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois has already done just that. Yesterday, he posted a video making fun of Obama’s statement in a speech on immigration in Texas that Republicans might want a moat full of alligators to protect the borders. Walsh spliced together footage Obama’s speech, text from a letter he wrote to the president saying that he’d be happy to have a moat full of alligators if that’s what it would take, and footage of alligators.

The video has gotten 7,702 views since being posted Thursday.

Congressman Gregg Harper is trying to keep the focus policy-oriented. He and his team have been posting his comments and statements in hearings and mark-ups.

For these three congressmen, this is not their first time dabbling in social media.

“We’ve tried to be active and engaging with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube clips,” said Walsh. “We started something, pretty early in my term where we do weekly Q&A’s to constituents back home on video … from my couch in my office. … and that’s been really popular with folks back home.”

Walsh said he’d been surprised at the way new media cut across all age groups. “We have a number of folks in their 50s and 60s and 70s who like to communicate with Facebook and respond to our Twitters.”

His favorite, he said, was Facebook, which he called, “the most engaging and probably the most responsive tool we use.” Harper said the same, calling Facebook his personal favorite.

Farenthold comes at this from a different angle. A former computer consultant, who ran a chatroom and message board out of his college dorm room (and once had the FBI show up thinking he was a bookie cause of the nine phone lines he had it running on), he is more well versed in technology than the average member of congress.

Social media is “critical to staying in touch,” he said, “and it’s fun.”

He said some of the more surprising interactions have been with other members of Congress.

“I was posting about getting stranded in an airport. Two or three different members apparently read it, and I was actually surprised. They commiserated with me, sympathized with me,” he said.

Farenthold’s favorite social media site isn’t even part of the competition.

“I have more fun with FourSquare than anything else,” he said. “I check in and enter some comments about where I am. I think it’s actually valuable for the constituents to know where I am and what I’m doing at any given time. And when it’s something really interesting, the FourSquare posting lets you cross post with Facebook and Twitter.”

The contest seems to have brought out the competitive spirit in the participants.

“We were aggressive before, but we’ve turned it up a few notches for the New Media Challenge,” said Rep. Tom Graves.

The challenge last year was a success by all accounts, and this year has double the participants.

Danny Glover, who runs Tweet Watch, a site that monitors politicians’ tweets, said that last year’s competition “was a success in making members of Congress aware that they can be using this tool to communicate.”

But, he said, “long term, it hasn’t been real successful in helping them understand how they can use it successfully.”

He noted that “in general, members of Congress, they tweet in cycles. And the cycles tend to be pretty long between tweets. So not only do they not really understand how they can use it, but … when it comes to Twitter, need to be tweeting every day, more than once a day.”

Glover pointed to the fact that there can be a “pretty big learning curve” with this stuff, but he said that the exposure to other colleagues’ ideas and methods of using twitter could help.

While Democrats are often spoken about as having the edge when it comes to social media, Glover says that Republicans have been the ones who really excelled on Twitter. Democrats, he said, have been learning from Republicans.

Adam Sharp at Twitter said he was pleased with the results.

“Last year’s challenge was a great motivator for members to be more engaged on Twitter, and I expect this year’s effort will raise the bar again,” he emailed. “In the end, through initiatives like this and the recent #AskDems event across the aisle, constituents wind up as the real winners. Users are able to connect more effectively to their elected leaders, and by extension, to the information that’s most meaningful to them and their families.”

The winner of the competition last year got an iPhone. Second place was a FlipCam, and third place was a set of steak knives. This year’s prizes have not yet been determined.

Ultimately, Walsh says, social media is great but no substitute for good policies.

“At the end of the day,” Walsh said, “I’m old fashioned, and I believe it still has to do with who you are and what you stand for … all these tools just have to do with getting that message out.”