Toronto politics in a hashtag

Published May 5, 2015 on spacing.ca.

It was 2010. The G20 protests were in the news, and Rob Ford was running for mayor. Some of Toronto’s Twitter users took to the web to air their thoughts in 140 characters that included the new hashtag #TOpoli. Here’s the first one to mention the former mayor:

In the past year, from May 5, 2014 to May 4, 2015, more than 1.7 million tweets and retweets used that hashtag. But as the first ten tweets that used the hashtag show, it wasn’t a big success right off the bat. Though it was first used in June 2010, it didn’t really take off until October 25, when this tweet appeared:

That’s when Jean-Pierre (JP) Boutros proposed changing from #VoteTO to a hashtag that more closely mirrored provincial hashtag #onpoli. “I just threw it out there,” he said. Boutros went on to work for Councillor Karen Stintz and run for council himself in 2o14. He thinks the hashtag took off because Toronto spent the four-plus years that followed in such preoccupation with municipal politics. But now that Rob Ford’s polarizing mayoralty is over, Boutros thinks there’s less interest in #TOpoli.

Kath Halloran was the first person to use the hashtag [CORRECTION: Halloran was among the first people to use #TOpoli, but was not the first]:

It’s only one among approximately 60,000 tweets authored by Halloran, an information officer with the Government of Ontario, since she joined Twitter in 2009. Given this verbosity, it’s unsurprising that she only “vaguely” remembers writing it. Halloran says #TOpoli isn’t going away for the same reasons that she was drawn to it: it’s brief, occupying only six characters, and it serves to distinguish politics about Toronto from other Canadian political hashtags like #cdnpoli.

But things have changed for both Twitter and Toronto since 2010. Hashtags became a less important way of sorting tweets when the platform’s search function changed. As for Toronto municipal politics, she says the conversation online has branched off in myriad directions. “[#TOpoli] is not precisely an artifact but it was I think certainly the first instance of [social media] engagement with municipal politics in Toronto,” she said.

That engagement is ongoing, but much of it isn’t under the hashtag. Halloran herself hasn’t used #TOpoli often since 2011, when she and her peers began receiving sexist and racist online abuse from trolls. It’s not a space where she feels welcome anymore. But “for all the bad things that come with a medium like Twitter… it’s also an exciting tool of connection,” she said.

Some people, like number one user Don Peat, continue to use #TOpoli. But there are plenty of Toronto tweeters who don’t. Communities like #WiTOpoli (@WiTOpoli) or #NoJetsTO (@NoJetsTO) have formed around specific issues, with community organizers often running a Twitter account that parallels the hashtag.

Mark Blevis is the president of Full Duplex, an online consulting firm that does social media analysis and digital reputation management. He’s also a data geek. Blevis, who published the list of first #TOpoli uses, has done extensive work looking at how Twitter relates to the Canadian political scene. He said that most “smart” Twitter users follow others they know produce trustworthy information, rather than just looking at a hashtag. “A strict reliance on #TOpoli as a way to stay informed and a way to participate is a fool’s game,” Blevis said.

Blevis is also among the people Spacing interviewed for a story on Twitter and Canadian city-building that will be appearing in the summer 2015 issue.

EDITOR’S NOTE: an earlier version of the article mistakenly identified the first #TOpoli tweet. We regret the error.

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