The real stars of Q&A: the faces behind the faceless tweets

Enabling debate ... Q&A engages both on and off screen. Above: host Tony Jones.
Enabling debate ... Q&A engages both on and off screen. Above: host Tony Jones.

The return of Q&A tonight signals not only the resumption of fervent debate on screen, but an equally fierce confrontation off it.

Serial tweeter James Fiander admits he's probably hard to miss on the Q&A Twitter feed on a Monday night. “Twitter has a restriction on the number on tweets you can send out per hour – I think it's 50 or 60 – and I used to exceed that every episode,” he says. “They block you for half an hour and stop you from tweeting.”

Fiander, 29, is just one of the loyalists who frequent the 'qanda' hashtag week after week. The show receives in excess of 21,000 tweets on average per episode, with the highest traffic in history an astounding 50,100 tweets during the Dawkins v Pell Easter special of last year.

No other show has tapped into the digital zeitgeist like ABC's Monday night staple. Its debut five years ago revolutionised engagement in political discussion in Australia, not to mention crafted a multi-platform viewing experience that other networks have so desperately tried to replicate.

“Twitter has been an enormous success for Q&A,” says the show's executive producer, Peter McEvoy. “It provides a way for viewers to interact with the program in real time and generates a new layer of democratic commentary in the debate.”

For the Q&A diehards on Twitter, you cannot have one without the other. Fiander, a marketing and communications manager, has been phone-in-hand, tweeting as 'roooney83', from the very first episode and hasn't stopped since. However, on the rare occasion he does miss a show, he never seeks to record it, nor does he watch it later; for him the excitement disappears. He will still, on the other hand, follow it live via Twitter.

“I use Twitter as an instant reaction to something,” he says. “I want to convey what my thought was exactly when I hear something on the TV.”

Such is the appeal of Q&A - it's a time-sensitive creature. No one wants to miss the thrill of engaging in live conversation. For the fans, there's an immediacy to it that borders on addiction, a chance to be part of a national dialogue that in some cases transcends the national. Melburnian Mike Stutchbery, 32, is a high school teacher in Stuttgart, but that doesn't stop him from diving head first into the Twitterverse during the show.

“I can't actually watch the show from Germany due to a geo-block,” Stutchbery says, “but I've found that after watching the #qanda feed for five minutes, I can usually get a good idea of what's happening,” he says. His 'qanda' quips have seen him reach close to 8000 followers.

Of course, having your tweets selected to appear on the show is an entirely different beast. Seeing your handle alongside such illustrious Twitterati as Craig Reucassel and Joe Hildebrand, who it seems hold down residencies on that bottom quarter of the screen, is a huge deal for the fans. Twenty-year-old finance and economics student Stephen Ragell only joined Twitter a few years ago, though his musings as 'TheAviator1992' have seen him gain a huge reputation on Twitter as a Q&A fanatic. His tweets are featured almost every week on the program, and he's notorious for debating his views vehemently on the feed.

“I try to be civil and reasonable with my tweets,” Ragell maintains. “Some people seem to use Twitter simply to attack those who disagree with them, but in my view that's not what social media is for. It's more useful to have constructive debate with people than to argue with them.”

As much as they might disagree online, tweeters are staunchly unanimous in their praise of its integration with the show. A frequent traveller, Stutchbery is fully aware of the rarity of democratic public discussion, let alone on a weekly basis.

“Very few countries have an opportunity for people from across the nation to sit down and fight like cats and dogs over the issues of the week,” he says.

The cynics are never far away though. Some think it's as superficial as the party rhetoric Q&A panellists are often criticised for spouting. Others lambast the efficacy of discussions in 140 characters, and doubt whether it achieves anything other than the online equivalent of hot air. Fiander, though still stands by its empowerment.

“I think there's a whole nation of disengaged people that are being enabled by Q&A and Twitter together to be more engaged with politics. I've been typing since I was about seven, so I now type faster than I speak,” he says.

His statement might make you laugh, but it hints at a more powerful idea about the contemporary conversation shift. Those who lament the upcoming generation as apathetic need only flick to the #qanda hashtag on a Monday at 9.35pm. Unlike Tony Jones, they don't take anything as a comment.

The fifth season of Q&A returns tonight at 9.35, on ABC1.

This story The real stars of Q&A: the faces behind the faceless tweets first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.