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Anatomy of a hashtag: Who tweets about Canadian politics?

Twitter may still be largely misunderstood by many. After all, who can truly have a meaningful exchange when restricted to 140 characters of typed text?

Twitter broke conversational conventions when it was launched in 2006, emerging from the idea that people wanted to share what they were doing at a particular moment, with friends and family. That novelty wore off fairly quickly for the early adopters. We recognized the potential of Twitter as an information sharing and community-building platform. Indeed, there has been an evolution from what some consider the truly mundane early days to today's fast-paced and generally concise amplification era. In case you aren't familiar, Twitter is a platform over which news breaks, careers (and companies) are launched and ruined, emergency information has been spread, lives have been rescued and money raised. That explains why we hear about Twitter in the mainstream media on a daily basis.

For political players and enthusiasts, Twitter has become something of an online water cooler. Canadian Twitter users in-the-know label their federal political chatter with a keyword ('hashtag' in Twitter-speak) known as #cdnpoli. Using tools by Sysomos, I track and analyze Canadian political chatter online. In 2012, 154,789 unique Twitter accounts contributed a total of 2,462,596 #cdnpoli tweets covering issues such as oil and the Northern Gateway Pipeline, the economy, the environment, omnibus bills and first nations treaties, to name just a few.

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It's hard to compare #cdnpoli to any other hashtag. Even hashtags associated with other political chatter such as #uspoli and any number of partisan or election-related conversations are entities unto themselves. Essentially, there is a group of politically interested, politically engaged people at the epicentre of the chatter. Awareness and information fan out from there, permeating other communities of interest (health, sports, immigration, natural resources, etc...), just as it does with Canadian political chatter which emanates from halls of political power to journalists, to the community hockey arenas.

Twitter is an active channel, not without its extreme points of view and participants, informed and not, willing to share their unfiltered opinions. Which means It's not always productive chatter. Twitter affords a certain amount of anonymity for those who aren't particularly comfortable associating their identify with their opinions. On the other hand, partisanship is also clear among those who identify with a particular political leaning.

The following list identifies the 10 most active #cdnpoli tweeters in 2012 with the number of tweets each issued appearing in brackets immediately following the Twitter handle for their account. The accounts combined to generate just over 9 per cent of the year's #cdnpoli tweets.

• @beari8it (45,232)

• @tarsandstwat (34,992)

• @gerrydagiraffe (33,657)

• @bollohollo (30,258)

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• @billhillier (18,843)

• @deepgreendesign (16,633)

• @can_ada (15,898)

• @urban_su (14,851)

• @cometsmum (11,427)

• @___Danno (10,975)

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Men accounted for 68 per cent of all #cdnpoli traffic in 2012; women for 32 per cent.

Not everyone uses #cdnpoli to identify their tweets as being related to Canadian politics. For example, only some MPs use the hashtag, and not consistently. While some of this may have to do with MPs not being as aware of this norm of digital culture, it allows me the joke that some politicians can't afford to give up any character count in their communication. Some people like that joke; others don't.

Still, there is an active group of MPs who tweet. Among them, the following were the most active in 2012.

• @DenisCoderre (6,792)

• @ElizabethMay (6,125)

• @Carolyn_Bennett (5,696)

• @MinRonaAmbrose (2,984)

• @MPJulian (2,633)

• @DanAlbas (2,558)

• @MarcGarneau (2,465)

• @KenneyJason (2,375)

• @TonyClementCPC (1,992)

• @WoodworthMP (1,960)

It's interesting to note there's only one NDP MP in the top 10 (Peter Julian). The NDP don't make a second appearance in the list of most active tweeters until @nikiashton (1,883) in the number 13 spot.

Tweets tagged with #cdnpoli are already on the rise this year. There were 235,530 #cdnpoli tweets in January 2013, a 59 per cent increase over the 147,853 issued in January 2012. My analysis continues.

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