This afternoon, a riveting and possibly ground-breaking conversation evolved in real time on the social media platform Twitter.  Yesterday, writer and broadcaster Colin Stuart (@skyponderer on Twitter) raised concerns about the new dual-role of UK Science Minister Lord Drayson – Drayson has just been made Minister of Defense Procurement as part of Gordon Brown’s reshuffle, on top of his duties as Minister of Science.  His comment was picked up by PD Smith, an author and reviewer for the Guardian newspaper, and re-tweeted.  Things might have ended there.  But Lord Drayson himself jumped into the conversation earlier today.  And so began a fascinating exchange between Drayson – a regular presence on Twitter – and a number of other Twitter users.

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Lord Drayson - UK Minister of Science, Minister of Defense Procurement, and founder of Drayton Racing. Image: Daily Mail

Both Sophia Collins at “I am a scientist. Get me out of here” and PD Smith have blogged on the exchange – read Smith for a concise account of the discussion, and Collins for a more complete rundown of the tweets. .. Looking through the succession of 140 character (or less) messages, this was clearly not a deep debate, nor one that led to marked changes in perspective.  But where it scored significantly was in the level of accessibility, transparency and engagement demonstrated by Lord Drayson.

Quoting PD Smith:

I have to admit I was surprised. Actually that’s a serious understatement. I sat in front of the screen for a few minutes wondering if I was seeing things. Don’t Her Majesty’s ministers of state have more urgent matters to attend to than dealing with comments on Twitter by authors? Perhaps it was a practical joke? A fake Lord perhaps?

Here was a senior minister engaging fully with members of the public on science policy.  And doing so without (as far as I could tell) being patronizing, unapproachable or stand off-ish.

The result was a clear demonstration of how emerging platforms like Twitter can help increase the level of engagement between decision-makers and the people impacted by their actions.

Of course, there are plenty of kinks still to be ironed out with how Twitter is best used to connect people in important ways.  Will we simply see increasingly sophisticated spin promoted under the banners of “engagement” and “transparency?”  How will PR folks manage the new accessibility?  Is engaging on Twitter less than inclusive?  Can you really have engagement in 140 character bites?  And what happens when everyone and their dog (or cat) realizes that important people are merely a tweet away?

But despite these questions, today’s conversation demonstrated that Twitter can provide a powerful platform for bringing publics and decision-makers together.  And I suspect that it goes further than this; whether we are talking engaging in policy or engaging in science, the platform enables interactions that it’s hard to imagine happening otherwise.

In this sense, Twitter is becoming the global equivalent of the local pub – where social hierarchies are less important than what you say, and how you say it.

Irrespective of the issues discussed, my sense is that Lord Drayson acquitted himself well today by being willing to converse with folk on Twitter.  And while no serious issues may have been put to bed, at least they had an airing and people were given a voice. What remains to be seen is whether others learn to use this and similar forums in a similar way and engage with others – whether on politics, science, or any other area that directly affects people.

I guess time and tweets will tell.