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The Conversation Age vs. "Official," "Disclosure," and Our Other Political Assumptions

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, April 26 2010

Where do our public political lives overlap with our online selves? Is professional versus personal a useful or reasonable distinction anymore in the share-everything-everywhere age of new media? What do "official" and "disclosure" even mean when we're living in the world of Twitter?

Two stories in Politico and the Washington Post in the last few days dealt with new questions about how political figures engage with the social web. In a good read on the state of 2012 GOP hopefuls' online approaches, Politico's Ken Vogel captures a debate about whether Sarah Palin should have held onto her Twitter account when she quit the governorship of Alaska, or whether it was state property. Then there's a piece by Cecelia Kang in the Washington Post that worries that lobbyists aren't disclosing themselves online in the same way that we expect -- and require -- them to do offline. Interesting questions, both. (And I'm on record as wondering what the heck should happen to @presssec and its 57,000 followers once Robert Gibbs is no longer White House press secretary.)

But something intriguing happened with both Vogel and Kang's stories: their subjects talked back. It seems like that reality should inform our thinking about how we draw distinctions in online politics about our expectations of political figures or what the rules governing behavior should be.

In Vogel's case, he included a critique from David All, who is probably familiar to our readers, about how Sarah Palin handled her Twitter account when she high-tailed it out of Juneau:

All pointed out that, after Palin resigned as Alaska governor, she terminated a Twitter account with a so-called handle identifying her as governor, which had thousands of followers and started assembling a following from scratch using a new account with the handle @SarahPalinUSA.

“All she had to do was go in and change her user name and setting, and she could have kept all her supporters,” All said.

But Rebecca Mansour, who helps run Palin’s Internet operation, said Palin had to hand over her previous Twitter account to the state of Alaska because it was “regarded as state property,” so she couldn’t merely convert it to keep her followers.

Palin fans didn't appreciate All's criticism, it seems. And so All blogged back on his TechRepublican site. He wrote that he stood by his comments and said, "In the online space, seemingly little details, like a Twitter username, make a major impact and should always receive thoughtful consideration." That, in turned, drew a response from Palin's lawyer, Thomas Van Flein. Van Flein explained, in a response All sought and posted on TechRepublican, that state authorities in Alaska insisted that Palin's Twitter account as governor was a "state asset." All responded to that by writing, "[W]e've now identified a problem which we should work to address collectively: How should the accounts of government officials be treated once they leave office?"

It's a conversation, you see, where people talk back. Whether a Twitter account is a state asset rests in part on the question of whether a government official is given unfair advantage for using government resources. Franking laws operate in a similar vein. But Twitter is free. Now what?

The second article in the pair was Kang's piece. Kang, in short, raises questions about whether people who are "lobbying" online on Twitter and other social networks are practicing good disclosure. Should those paid to lobby Congress have to fit that into their tiny Twitter bio? What if no one reads their Twitter bio? Kang quotes the Sunlight Foundation's policy director John Wonderlich as saying, "It's a bit of a Wild West." There's a lot that can be read into a comment like that, especially for someone working for an open government group. But here, again, our source becomes the "writer." Wonderlich takes to the Sunlight Foundation's blog to share context for his comments in Kang's piece. He writes, "Any alarm we feel at the complex identity of paid lobbyists should be tempered, though, by an appreciation for the effects of communicating online."

Should politicians hang onto their Twitter accounts once they leave office? Should lobbyists be required to disclose more online? Those are useful and healthy debates to be having in 2010. But the operative question we should be asking isn't how we port what we've come to expect offline to the online space, but rather why we have the disclosures and restrictions and expectations that thread through our politics at all. Because this is a fundamentally different playing field than the offline political world we once knew.

For one thing, people talk back. And other people listen.