The real Twitter tragedy about Weiner
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.