The pros and cons of creating a character to deliver news and information.

Misa Buscemi
Dec 8, 2017 · 6 min read

Did you vote in your last local election? If not, why not? If so, how did you stay informed on the issues? Chances are it didn’t involve a Bitmoji.

Enter @CivicDutyBae. She’s your go-to girl for all things local government. She wants to make you a better informed, well-engaged citizen. You can find her on Twitter. She was designed to engage her followers on — you guessed it — local civics, a topic that is important but perhaps not widely covered (and may be considered boring by some 😴). The project started ahead of the March 2017 local elections in Los Angeles County. At first, Civic Duty Bae was simply an emoji sliding into your texts in a video on Annenberg Media’s Facebook page. She later became her own Twitter account, chatting with @AnnenbergMedia about ballot measures.

When the fall semester rolled around, it was time to take @CivicDutyBae to the next level. The experiment has two goals:

  1. To find a new, fun and conversational way to cover civic issues for an audience of college students who, as they begin #adulting, could probably use more information on this subject.
  2. To learn more about character-delivered news in the AI era.

So, three months ago, I became @CivicDutyBae. First, I decided she needed to be upgraded from the heart eyes emoji (😍), which was her profile picture at the time, to be more human. But I didn’t want to put a real human face to her character. I decided on a compromise and designed a Bitmoji for her profile that I could reuse in tweets to help build the character. I picked the most patriotic dress I could find, Photoshopped her briefcase, and viola!

After updating her bio, I then turned to a bigger struggle: finding relevant content for @CivicDutyBae to cover in the absence of an event such as a county-wide election. USC students are our target audience, naturally, though the account can serve other college students as well, and really anyone who doesn’t feel particularly confident about their government and civics knowledge.

@CivicDutyBae’s first tweet series of the semester covered gerrymandering, a topic that was in the news that week because of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. I decided to break the concept down in an easy-to-understand series of tweets. The series received around 300 impressions, which was a lot for an account with only about 30 followers.

A week later, I thought it was a good time for @CivicDutyBae to hear directly from her followers to find out what they wanted to learn more about. After all, part of the goal is to be a clear and direct source of practical information. So I picked a few topics that were in @CivicDutyBae’s scope of coverage and tweeted a poll.

We got a clear answer, and @CivicDutyBae delivered.

Since @CivicDutyBae doesn’t have many friends yet, we had to introduce her to the wider Annenberg Media audience. I designed a graphic saying what she was about and why people should follow, which was then pushed out across the other accounts. This graphic also included her Bitmoji, which I think helped because it gave people something to associate her with and make her brand more recognizable. Over the past few months, @CivicDutyBae has gone from 19 to 66 followers, more than tripling in just over three months. That’s healthy growth!

Based on my three months of ~being~ @CivicDutyBae, here are what I think are the pros and cons of the experiment.

Pros

Creative freedom: Starting from scratch, I was able to customize @CivicDutyBae, creating her personality and giving her a sense of humor. This allowed me to give her a voice that I thought fit her character and turn reporting on traditionally dry topics into fun and engaging stories. For example, when the “First of all” meme took over the internet, @CivicDutyBae jumped right on the bandwagon. Most stories on gerrymandering usually don’t include memes. However, because of the freedom I had to make the story more entertaining, I was able to include gifs, memes and links to different platforms including a podcast and a game, and use casual, conversational language.

Using a character can break down the political barrier on some of the more divisive topics that may be covered when talking about civics and allow for an unbiased and friendly dialogue. It seemed to open the door to more conversation by keeping the discussion interesting and non-threatening.

Engagement: Although I can’t be sure that it’s because of her character, @CivicDutyBae got pretty good engagement. @GovGerry (one of the many Twitter accounts that imitates historic political figures) couldn’t resist getting in on the gerrymandering fun, and we also attracted attention from a self-proclaimed “giant salamander lady.”

And that poll I mentioned above got 29 votes. That’s nearly half of @CivicDutyBae’s followers!

We need to do further investigation to find out if her character is effective. Once the following grows more, we’ll send out user surveys and perhaps do some informal newsroom focus groups.

Cons

Making the case for a character: In general, there needs to be a big draw for people to follow your social account. The proposition becomes even harder if your account is a random character. “What’s the point of this?” people might ask. If you want to create a character on Twitter, you must have a really good reason as to why this would be better than tweeting from a regular branded account or a reporter’s account. What value are you adding?

For @CivicDutyBae, I believe the draw is being able to cover a topic some might find boring in a light and humorous way. Additionally, local races are not as sexy as national elections or other newsworthy topics and often don’t receive very much attention, even though they can be much more impactful on people’s daily lives. @CivicDutyBae was there to fill in the gap in the market for local government content, information on elections and ways to be more civically engaged, all while keeping it fun.

Credibility: Why would people take legal advice from a Bitmoji? That question is one that I struggled with during my time as @CivicDutyBae. Naturally, I tried to build credibility by making sure @CivicDutyBae was always citing her sources.

This is another place a user survey could help us learn more. Why did people choose to follow a Bitmoji and respond to her questions? Did she appear trustworthy? Did they take her advice seriously? I still do not know the answers, but you check out @CivicDutyBae and have any observations, please share!


During my time as @CivicDutyBae, I once woke up from a dream in a sweat, imagining that she was losing followers 😫. So, it is with mixed feelings that I move on from this experiment. In the future, I hope that @CivicDutyBae is able to put out more content, grow her following and solidify her brand by narrowing down the scope of what topics she covers. Ideally, she would even expand beyond Twitter to other platforms, such as Facebook Messenger, an Alexa skill or text notifications. What’s your reaction to @CivicDutyBae? Please let me know here, or you can always tweet at her!

Media Center Lab

Insight and innovation from students at USC Annenberg's Media Center.

Thanks to Tiarnan McCaffrey and Katherine Ryan

Misa Buscemi

Written by

USC Annenberg student

Media Center Lab

Insight and innovation from students at USC Annenberg's Media Center.

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