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Congress on Twitter: Getting Between the 435 and the 140

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, February 26 2009

Twitter / SenJohnMcCain

Dana Milbank wrote a column yesterday poking fun at a handful of the 435 members of Congress -- like Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Sen. Claire McCaskill, and Rep. John Culberson -- for posting to Twitter during President Obama's speech before Congress Tuesday night. There was something about Milbank's sneering tone ("[I]t seemed as if Obama were presiding over a support group for adults with attention-deficit disorder") that got me uncharacteristically heated. (Well, heated for me. I tend towards being metabolically laid-back.) Why is Milbank's critique unsettling? Here's one reason.

While Twitter is still in its infancy, lots of people seem to really like it. Amongst a certain and growing segment of the population, you see a passion for it that you once only saw people have for Tivo. What Twitter and Tivo seem to share is that they both can seem pretty "eh" before you get your hands on it -- at which point they change your bloody life. The danger is that in mocking what was undoubtedly some pretty inane and vapid postings from Congress Tuesday night ("Call to arms on healthcare reform. He means it!") a skittish Congress backs off of experimenting with communicative technologies. The result: widening the already gaping gap between how Washington uses technology and the rest of America does. Sure, some tech will turn out to be Second Life. But others will turn out to be the sort of real-time, constantly-updated blog-style reporting that has reshaped the news business. Without experimentation and even failures, government will always be playing catch-up, lagging behind the rest of the country.

The Sunlight Foundation's Bill Allison takes to the Washington Post today to make the argument against smothering congressional tweeting in this early awkward stage:

As a new technology, Twitter has tremendous potential to connect members of Congress and citizens, making members' actions more transparent, accountable and immediately accessible to constituents. As Mr. Milbank showed, not every tweet written by members of Congress will be profound, and some make former senator Bob Graham's diaries seem short on detail. That's not the fault of the medium, though, and we'd be better served if more members used the technology.

At least one member of Congress was unswayed by Milbank's criticisms. (That, or he doesn't read the Washington Post.) Senator John McCain has racked by 93,000+ followers, and is using Twitter to muse about everything from going to dinner with his mom Roberta, the Phoenix Suns, and voting on constitutional points of order on the Senate floor. It's a personal, personable McCain that was often absent from the presidential campaign trail.