El Presidente is standing by to take your tweet [Updated]
Venezuelan strongman, er, President Hugo Chávez Frías embraced social media late last month, launching his own Twitter feed. And in only two weeks, he became the most-followed person in Venezuela (so to speak), with more than 267,000 fans! At least, that's according to the Venezuelan government, which put out a news release this morning announcing Chávez's distinction. If that seems like a lightweight topic, at least it's better for Chávez than talking about the government seizing the farm owned by Venezuela's former U.N. ambassador (and fierce Chávez critic) Diego Arria.
Anyway, although some people have reached the Twitter heights by virtue of being an unhinged celebrity, a leader of the free world or an engagingly goofy pro ballplayer, Chávez is trying to cement his popularity the old-fashioned way: by opening the country's treasury. Here's how the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington put it:
On May 7, President Chavez announced that he was assigning a number of aides to help respond to the multitude of requests coming in through Twitter, and also announced the creation of a special fund to directly assist those who contact him on Twitter and that require immediate attention in key areas such as housing and health.
Granted, Chávez gained followers pretty rapidly before starting the new 140-character grant application program. Perhaps it's because he found a way to cut the tedium of one of his characteristically verbose speeches:
While his first tweets were merely informational, on May 3 he began responding directly to other Twitter users, a practice replicated by virtually none of the other heads of state that use the service. (His first response was to a Mexican girl, to whom he wished a happy birthday to her sister.) He has also taken to responding to tweets during presidential addresses and speeches.
By the way, the unofficial Twitaholic rankings put El Presidente at a respectable 567th globally, ahead of such luminaries as Glenn Beck, Slash and Pamela Anderson. His numbers are particularly impressive considering there are only about 300,000 Twitter users in Venezuela. But he's got a ways to go yet before he can compete with the real Twitter elite. You know, like Ashton Kutcher and Lady Gaga. I doubt even Venezuela's oil profits are enough to put Chávez in their league.
Updated, 11:44 a.m.: Janet Duckworth, my editor, noted that Venezuelan broadcasters are required to carry Chávez's speeches in their entirety. So naturally she wondered whether El Presidente's Twitter statistics were inflated through a mandate of some kind on Venezuelan Twitter users. With that in mind, and also to test how quickly Chávez's team replied, I asked him via Twitter whether his fellow citizens were compelled to follow his Tweets. (Hat tip to Lisa Richardson for the Spanish translation.) I'll update this post again if I get an answer.
Updated, 12:13 p.m.: Well, that didn't take long. Martin Andres Austermuhle, strategic communications advisor to the Venezuelan embassy, just responded via e-mail to my updated post. I'm a little disappointed I didn't hear back via Twitter, but that 140-character thing is a pain. And who knows, maybe the man himself will get back to me later, after he's done responding to the Tweets seeking Bolivars. Here's Austermuhle:
In response to your post today about President Chávez and Twitter, the answer would be no, there is no mandate that anyone become President Chávez’s follower on Twitter.
We know what you wrote was in jest, but there is certainly something to be said for a head of state actually using Twitter for what it was meant – engaging in conversation. Very few elected officials actually engage with their followers on Twitter, and many simply use the service to rehash press releases or talking points. President Chávez has been exchanging thoughts – brief ones, of course! – with users inside and out of Venezuela, and he has not limited himself to his supporters.
I could be reading too much into it, but I'm guessing Austermuhle had a specific head of state in mind when he said that Chávez was "actually using Twitter for what it was meant."
-- Jon Healey
Photo: Manuel Diaz / Associated Press