Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Irish marriage equality poll showed what Twitter can do

Unlike the passing of the New Zealand marriage equality law through that country's Parliament - which took place two years ago - Saturday's Irish marriage equality referendum was really a global event and part of the reason for this was how Twitter was used in conjunction with the #MarRef hashtag. While in the first case the news of the legislation was noted by international news outlets in their web pages, in the case of #MarRef the media played catch-up to social media as usual, like a sleepy bear to Twitter's cloud of pesky and insistent sandflies.

Voting in the Republic or Ireland is not compulsory but over 60 percent of eligible adults turned out to cast their votes at polling stations on the day. Of these around two-thirds voted for marriage equality. This news could first be seen on social media, with traditional news sites releasing stories at least 30 minutes after the fact. And the speed at which tweets appeared was something astounding to see. In fact, in order to reliably sample information from the streaming feed you had to do things to slow down or stop the feed. One way to do this is, for example in TweetDeck, to remove the focus of the reading column away from the docked position at the top of the column. To do this you scroll the column of tweets down a tweet or so. Once the focus is taken away from the top of the reading column new tweets will be registered using a counter but the currently-viewed tweet will not be replaced by new ones.

Today is Wednesday and the #MarRef column in my TweetDeck is still active, with people in Ireland posting their views on the event on a fairly regular basis, although the frequency with which tweets arrive in the column is nothing like how it was at the time the poll results were being tallied, and results made public by the authorities. Still, the hashtag still has a viable life as people digest the meaning of the event for them, for their country, or for their community.

What is remarkable about those hours when results were arriving in the public domain in Ireland was the level of excitement the hashtag registered for anyone in the world to see. Already, in Australia, we have seen the prime minister questioned on TV about a private member's bill the opposition leader intends to introduce in favour of marriage equality. Already, the matter has become a local issue in Australia just as it quickly became an international issue due to the presence of that frenetic hashtag and its accompanying tweetstream. That level of excitement cannot be communicated easily in the absence of social media, although a viral video might have come close. This event shows us the unique way that social media can contribute to global and local debates. In fact, it shows how the global can quickly become the local.

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