Meet Harrisburg’s ‘Selfie Caucus,’ lawmakers burning up Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram

“We don’t want to be slick and shiny. We want to be ourselves.”

Selfies
State Rep. Marty Flynn on Instagram/State Rep. Jordan Harris on Instagram
Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

Pa. Rep. Ryan Bizzarro wants you to follow him on Snapchat. The Erie lawmaker posted this on Twitter and Facebook. He’s pretty active on Twitter, but not as much as he is Facebook, where he posts prolifically. Travel alerts, updates on legislation, musings on historic days, news he finds relevant to his constituents— for much of this, Bizzarro not only crafts posts but attaches custom graphics, often bearing his social handles.

In the days of yore, politicians didn’t normally share like this. But it’s a new day. Bizzarro, 31, has gotten a lot of attention for posting plenty of selfies on Instagram. It’s intentional.

“This is who I am,” said Bizzarro. “There’s no oops; there’s no blunders. This is what I want people to see.”

Bizzarro is a member of the Selfie Caucus. No, it’s a not a real caucus that convenes and zeroes in on goals or whatnot. It’s more of a label that’s been given to younger, social-media-savvy lawmakers in Harrisburg. Rep. Jordan Harris of Philadelphia is pretty sure they earned the moniker for taking selfies in the caucus room.

The name has some shade to it. In “small-c conservative” Harrisburg, heavy social media use and unabashed self-portraiture don’t conform with every elected’s idea of what a lawmaker is supposed to do. And yet, the Selfie Caucus forms the vanguard of state legislators implementing digital communications.

“They proved themselves fairly skilled,” said John Micek, opinion editor at the Patriot-News and a fellow fluent social media denizen who also referred to the cadre as “brand masters.” “They became kind of omnipresent, like those people who are on Instagram all the time.”

Caucus members tend to be Democratic state representatives, under the age of 45, from cities. “The Senate is a little staid for those kind of hijinks,” Micek said. Rep. Mike Schlossberg of Allentown, who is totally in the pack, wrote a book on social media and politics called Tweets and Consequences. He pointed out that social media use is (slightly) higher in cities than in the country, but noted, “I think we used it in overall life and then figured out how to integrate it when we got to Harrisburg.”

Schlossberg isn’t much for selfies, but doesn’t mind being grouped with like-minded folks under that coinage. He’s a believer in the platforms. Social media allows him to communicate more than a message — it’s also about personality. Bizzarro, he noticed, has “resting duck face.”

“There’s such distrust in government. [Voters] see the perfectly coiffed hair, American flag lapel pins and they get angry at that,” he said. “Politicians are supposed to be slick and shiny. But we don’t want to be slick and shiny. We want to be ourselves.” 

Rep. Marty Flynn of Scranton insists he’s just being himself. On his private Instagram account (he said he prefers to get a sense of who’s following him that way), he can be seen wearing a Wu Tang ugly sweater. In another post, he’s out shooting clay pigeons. He posts memes with motivational quotes. There’s a heavy deluge of food photos— pasta, pizza, tacos — the kind any everyday person would post. It’s the steady presence of photos from the Capitol that remind the viewer he’s a bit different from them.

He thinks public figures have a responsibility to allow constituents “to see into your life, whoever’s looking.”

“I’m not saying post when you take a drink of water,” he explained, “but when you’re seeing something awesome or fun, why not share it?”

Bizzarro said when he first entered politics, his then-girlfriend, who was versed in social media, impressed on him the necessity to be super active on those networks. From there, he’s worked to bake social media into how he engages with voters, and hit it aggressively. He’s heard from other lawmakers who think he’s going about it the wrong way.

“One of my colleagues told me, ‘The whale that surfaces gets harpooned.’” Bizzarro respectfully disagrees. “I took this job to make [my constituents’] lives better and easier, and I can do that through the use of social media, and if I can have a little fun in the process, I’m going to do it. That’s just how I look at it.”

Kerric Harvey, a professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, edited the 1,640-page Encyclopedia of Social Media and Politics, the first collection of research of its kind. Media is something that politicians have always “struggled with and capitalized on simultaneously,” she said.

She uses President Abraham Lincoln as an example: Donning his iconic stovepipe hat was a device, as cartoonists took to his angular features. “But when you look at pictures,” she said, “he started to wear it more judiciously with the development of photography.”

She explained that what we’re seeing play out isn’t “so much culture clashes, but cultural nudges that look intergenerational, but might not actually be intergenerational.”

“I think it’s typical of younger people in public life, or possibly younger people, period,” she said. The commonalities in demographics among caucus members likely aren’t a coincidence. “These people would be forming their own social bloc even without taking the selfies. It sort of advertises to people who aren’t in this bloc that they are in this cohort… The people who aren’t taking the selfies are out.”

Still, she cautioned that readers shouldn’t paint the social media use of older citizens with a broad brush. Politicians’ approaches with media have “always been something of a patchwork quilt,” based on their preferences and the relationships they forge with varying platforms.

“At the top of those shades of gray are people who have no patience for social media— those people are a lost cause anyway,” she explained. “But the people who are maybe one, two, layers down are people who we call cherry pickers. They choose technology that suits their needs. They’re discriminate.”

Not in the Selfie Caucus, but perhaps an associate member is Rep. Steve Bloom of Carlisle. He’s 55 and a Republican. He live-tweets each bill when it comes up for a vote, which was a campaign promise he made. He’s all over Facebook. He says some millennials advised him against Snapchat, but he kind of regrets that now.

“It’s hard to tell which social media platforms will be enduring, because so many come and go,” he said.

His Twitter use also predates his political career and his voice there serves as news commentary, with thoughts on legislation and news articles.

Bloom is aware that constituents treat him as a news source. Since he tweets about every bill, he publishes thoughts on legislation that the media hasn’t covered.

Social-heavy lawmakers all say they strive for their feeds to be informative, mindful that voices shift depending on the platform. Many also said they’ve developed litmus tests for what and what not to post around certain baseline questions: Would I share this with my mother or grandmother? Would I be okay with a news site running with it? Harris said the latter occurred to him when Billy Penn retweeted a selfie of him with a student, making funny faces. He’s cool with the photo; he wanted to make the girl happy. The retweet just made him think.

Harvey does see at least one new aspect to how politicians are engaging with the innovations of the day. What sets new media apart, she explained, is the conversations they’re starting.

“When we look at the history of even just electronic media, when the telegraph came out… it was, ‘oh, here’s a new way to do what we’ve been doing,” she said. “It didn’t plunge the political world into a maelstrom of self-examination.”

Flynn sometimes second-guesses himself after speaking his mind on an issue. What if his thinking evolves and this post could make him appear flip? Are certain hot button issues too contentious to touch?

My constituency might be 50/50 on something, or 60/40,” he said. “At what point is it worth talking about when you’re pissing off half of the people you represent?

“I slap myself sometimes. ‘Should I post that? Ughh, why did I post that?’”

Flynn remains convinced, though, that the benefits outweigh the risks. “I think for me personally, it shows who I am in the sense that I’m not perfect, that I am opinionated, that I’m human. I think it’s the humanness that helps me.”

Out of the five caucus members we spoke to, three professed that they were human, and the fourth said he wanted to be genuine. A fifth member said they just aimed to inform.

Mark Weaver, a communications consultant who trains politicians in social media and a former communications director for the Pennsylvania House, wasn’t surprised to hear that younger lawmakers were making a splash. For legislatures where elected officials have long been expected to follow a certain way of speaking and manner of dress, it’s reasonable that social media norms common for young people would provoke “a stir over whether it was proper legislative decorum.” He pointed to the hullaballoo that occurred when Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives began to Periscope and Facebook Live the sit-in they staged over gun control legislation last year. 

He’s sure the Selfie Caucus in many ways will win and “will slowly change the institution of the General Assembly.”

But the use of selfies might not always be advisable. Both Harvey and Weaver see a certain risk in different groups interpreting selfies in different ways. Weaver believes a generation gap is solid in this regard. “Older generations are more likely to view some social media users a little bit like the person at the party who’s always talking about themselves,” he said. For younger voters that’s acceptable, but for seniors? “There’s a fine line between being a member of the Selfie Caucus and the Self-obsessed Caucus.”

Harvey, while being cautious about labeling how seniors use digital networks, echoed many of Weaver’s thoughts, arguing that young politicians shouldn’t speak solely one code: “Sooner or later, you have to leave your own yard, especially if you want to run the world.”

Rep. Joanna McClinton, who serves parts of Philly and Delaware County, laughed at the name Selfie Caucus. She’s in it. She acknowledged that. But she noted that she makes efforts not to take selfies alone regularly, but rather with folks from her district. She hasn’t gotten much negative feedback from colleagues, but some have asked her questions like, “Did you sleep? You’re always on!”

She recalled that one time, she tried to tag a recently retired state representative, Bill Adolph, in a photo on Twitter while he was still in the legislature. But he wasn’t on Twitter.

You want to continue this comedy routine? Which Twitter?” Adolph said, laughing when we reached him.

Look, I think the media is great, the way the news can come out. What happens is you just get so busy,” he explained. Between interviews with press and meetings with the appropriations committee, which he chaired, he just never really found the time to get active on the site. 

“I walked around the State Capitol in 1990 with what seemed like a 20-pound phone,” he said, now 67. “That’s just how things change.

“But it’s definitely the future,” he said of social media. “I don’t think it’s the future; I think it’s the present.”