The real Twitter tragedy about Weiner

June 14, 2011

Reaching out,
To touch a stranger
Electric eyes are everywhere

— ‘Human Nature,’ recorded by Michael Jackson

It seems the final act of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s public life, at least for now, is upon us. Weiner’s spectacularly rapid, self-inflicted crash and burn crested Saturday when House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said that while she felt the New York representative’s pain, he ought to work things out “without the pressures of being a Member of Congress.” Then, Sunday, more pictures

(Update: Weiner announced his resignation on June 16.)

Even without the week of his media lying tour Weiner might not have survived the basic sexting scandal — and how could he? As a married public official who created and distributed damning evidence of, at best, flirtatious impulses, his behavior toes the line of predatory behavior.

But the real metaphysical point of no return was Weiner’s immediate impulse to blame technology, by sending an immediate false Tweet that his Twitter account had been hacked after he mistakenly Tweeted his underwear, er, “pose” for the benefit of a woman not his wife.

And in one of the many crazy ironies of this whole sad tale (seriously: who doesn’t think all this wasn’t a plea to get caught?), Weiner manufactured a sordid Twitter story that will actually end as a cautionary Twitter tale.

Social media is increasing playing a star turn in major world events, but it is blamed or credited excessively for shaping them — most recently the uprising in Egypt some called a “Facebook revolution.” While Twitter, like the telephone, is only as god or bad as the uses to which it is put, the spontaneous atmosphere of intimacy it creates is more compelling than a common carrier. Twitter’s characteristics played a role here, and we wouldn’t think to apply the same standard to Verizon if Weiner was calling rather than Tweeting women.

But if we put aside the long string of bad decisions that Weiner made before, during and after the Tweet heard round the world, doesn’t this mean that maybe Twitter itself actually did have an impact on the outcome in a way that, say, Verizon would not have if we were talking simply about a phone call?

In other words, could this be a Twitter-born tragedy after all? Just not the way Weiner wanted us to think it was?

The answer, I think, is a qualified yes.

Let’s be clear, though: Twitter has as much to do with encouraging bad behavior — be it bullying or sharing inappropriately — as the telephone does with prank calling. In other words, none. But Twitter does provide kindling to the uniquely combustible combination a politician brings to the mix: hubris, imperiousness and a sense of invulnerability.

Twitter and Facebook are powerful political tools precisely because they are designed to let strangers self-organize, and to be found and contacted without any pre-arrangement. This is perfect for virtual, perpetual town halls. But it’s also an easier way to talk up that pretty intern without running the risk that her e-mail or cell number will leave a trail back to you.

A politician who follows (Twitter) or friends (Facebook) you is taking what, is these days, a necessary and basic step to acknowledge a constituent’s existence. That sets the stage for speaking directly and in (ahem) unexpected and previously impossible ways.

For the good, it means that the people in Newark who were suffering through the blizzard of ’10 (2010) were able to directly contact Mayor Cory Booker merely by sending a text message to an address they could Google in a split-second.

For the bad — well, look no further than Anthony Weiner. Irony alert again: Weiner, as @RepWeiner on Twitter, was among the best at this kind of online retail politics, with nearly 50,000 followers when the scandal broke. (He has about 80,000 now, but hasn’t Tweeted since June 2).

Politicians shied away a bit from Twitter spontaneity after the Weiner scandal. That’s a mistake. Social media is dissolving the distance between us, and even though some people won’t be able to handle this new sort of closeness right away, the best best among us will. And governance is one of the ripest areas for the kind of organic improvement social media can cultivate, since it tends to increase the accountability of elected officials.

A fact that Weiner is probably only now starting to fully appreciate.


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Posted by The real Twitter tragedy about Weiner « Michael Jackson 1958 – 2009 | Report as abusive

I think the real tragedy is that the media is a willing and very able partner with the politicians to destroy anyone that makes an attempt to be heard. This causes real people that can actually help our countries people to stay far away. Only politicains and glory seeking radicals will step into the spotlight.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I would rate Representative Weiner’s tweeting scandal as miniscule compared to some of the really great ones we have had over the years.

• President J.F. Kennedy and his prowess with actresses.
• President Clinton and his escapades with a House Intern (including his impeachment trial over the affair). President Clinton was a good example of how politicians play on words. He said “I never had sex with ‘that’ woman.” The implication was she had sex with him and it was wholly a one sided affair. Additionally, he said (referring to the affair) “It all depends on what your definition of “is” is!
• Senator John Edwards and his mistress on the side (while he was running for President of the United States of America).
• Sen. David Vitter was caught in the middle of a call girl scandal.
• Sen. John Ensign (R-Nevada) admitted to an extramarital affair (2009) a year after the fact and the affair was a campaign aide and when he was a member of Promise Keepers (a men’s Christian ministry group).
• Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) was arrested in a Minneapolis airport men’s room (11 June 2007- police undercover vice operation) for soliciting sex (Senate ethics committee later [14 Feb 2008] determined Senator Graig’s actions constituted “improper conduct which has reflected discreditably on the Senate”).
• Rep. Mark Foley (R- Florida) sent sexually explicit emails to male pages working on Capital Hill (he quit of this revelation).
• Rep. Eric Massa (D-New York) was accused of “groping” some of his male staffers and eventually resigned from office because of the allegations. He had evidently engaged in “groping” of staffer for a year before it became public knowledge.
• Elliot Spitzer (former governor of New York) and his calling a “lady of the night” to meet him in Washington D.C. for a “secret” night of close encounters.
• Mark Safford (former governor of South Caroline) and his trips to South American to meet with his dream girl (Argentine woman).
• Arnold Schwarzenegger (former 2-term Governor of California) and his fathering a child out of wedlock (before he became governor) and keeping it a secret for over a decade.

There were also cheaters of another kind, famous tax evaders.
• Timothy Geithner (present U.S. Treasury Secretary).
• Charlie Wrangle (present U.S. Representative).

Posted by charlie651 | Report as abusive

Oh ye sanctimonious masses! I’ve been a non-practicing Christian for over 30 years. So, forgive my lack of sincerity on this quote: “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” The man screwed up. Let him be! Agreed, he’s contrite because he got caught. But, don’t y’all have anything better to do than publicly castigate him? He lost his career, and will be lucky to have a marriage after all is said and done. Also, I’m not a Luddite, but social networking bores me to absolute tears! Are those of you who get into this as fascinated by the quality of your communication, as you obviously are by the mode of said communication? Do any of you place any value on the sanctity of personal space? Thanks for letting me share. Peace.

Posted by towncrier59 | Report as abusive

Agreeing but expanding on tmc’s comment. Surely Rep Pelosi’s capsulization was both restrained and compassionate One commends her.
Much of the pain of tragedy comes from sorrow over what might have been. We all perforce move on to what we become, hopefully wiser. We hardly can know what might have been for a tragic perpetrator. It is as true now as ever that the tongue is sadly faster than the brain. The twitter-finger is faster still, but correctly is no media-monster. A monstrous problem, however, may well be the vast number of persons, public and private who seemingly have not enough to do! Twittering or face-booking, despite sometime utility, observably and overwhelmingly demonstrate the inanity of non-thinking. One asserts that a polity dominated by non-thinkers, in high or low places, is unlikely to last. The US constitution is suited to a free and thoughtful people, not to “angry birds” or puffed-up pigeons.

Posted by jacksonone | Report as abusive

Good article.
Cameras, social media, internet, instant access. All those put politicians under more scrutiny – which is a good thing. Their true nature comes out faster this way.

I wish we had as much scrutiny by intended destabalizers to go after the corruption (deal making) as well as the creepy side of politics.

Maybe we can eventually flush down all the turds deciding our future and keep the good ones at the helm.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive