THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joanna Weiss

Go ahead, tweet something interesting

(Note to Anthony Weiner: But not that interesting)

(Getty Images)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / June 5, 2011

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THESE DAYS, nothing travels faster than a scandalous picture of underpants.

That’s the first lesson from the Internet kerfuffle known on Twitter as #Weinergate. It involves Representative Anthony Weiner and a photo of somebody’s boxer briefs, sent to a college student last week from the New York Democrat’s Twitter account.

Whether this was a hoax or an induction into the Dumb Oversexed Politicians Club was hard to parse for the first few days after the scandal broke. Weiner insists the photo was some kind of prank, but he also said he “can’t say with certitude’’ that the skivvies aren’t his. Which brings us to lesson two, addressed to politicians everywhere: DO NOT UPLOAD PICTURES OF YOUR BODY PARTS. (Better yet, don’t take those pictures in the first place. Is that really so hard?)

It goes to show that politicians — even seemingly media-savvy ones like Weiner — have a lot to learn about the tools of online interaction. Twitter demands the sort of spontaneity and authenticity that most political handlers try their best to quash. The unguarded moments are the ones that get the boss into trouble.

But if politicians would dare to be unguarded — if not about underpants, then other things — Twitter could yield serious rewards. That’s why Weiner’s Twitter feed, pre-#Weinergate, is actually something to be cherished.

Weiner, after all, is one of the few politicians on the national stage who seems to understand Twitter at all. His feed, @RepWeiner, complete with photo from his Bar Mitzvah days, is Twitter at its best: an amusing, intermittently useful stream of snarky comments, links, and two-way conversation.

Weiner traffics in hashtags — little phrases that identify discussion topics, like #Congress and #Bruins, but can also be punchlines in themselves. He launched a tweet attack against the justice he calls #ConflictedClarenceThomas. He tells you what he’s thinking, on matters large and small. In a tweet predicting a Canucks win, he wrote, “#ButI’mRootingForBs.’’

Most politicians’ Twitter feeds, by contrast, read as precisely what they are: Some lowly staffer, posing as the boss and dutifully typing talking points. A sample from @MittRomney: “I believe in America & look forward to sharing my vision with the country.’’ And from @TimPawlenty: “Enjoyed talking to the morning anchors this morning about my campaign.’’

A few politicians manage, at least, to project some degree of personality. @NewtGingrich replies to people personally. @MicheleBachmann heckles the president. And if @SarahPalinUSA weren’t so busy with her cryptic bus tour, she could probably teach a course in social media. “GOP: don’t retreat!’’ she recently told her 540,000 followers. “The country is going broke. We can’t AFFORD cowboy poetry & subsidizing abortion.’’

Of course, not all politicians have the freedom to tweet with abandon, says Marcus Messner, who teaches social media at Virginia Commonwealth University. For most boring political feed, Messner nominates @BarackObama.

Even Gingrich, once he turned into a candidate, went back to his archives and deleted some personal tweets, such as a series of reveries from April 2010 about the joys of Easter candy (“I ate a reeses peanut butter cup for my breakfast’’).

But that was missing the point of Twitter, says Sam Ford, an MIT-trained social-media guru whose upcoming book is called “Spreadable Media.’’ Politicians have long struggled to connect with the public. Twitter, in some ways, is the perfect solution. Type out a handful of personal replies, and you’re one with the people. Gush about some chocolate, and they think they know your soul.

Sure, the pitfalls are grand. Everything is permanent, and subject to hyperanalysis. We wouldn’t trail a politician through a crowd and record every nod as some grand policy statement, yet we’re willing to parse 140 characters to death.

But if you tweet too cautiously, there’s little point at all. And even a Twitter gaffe, as Ford points out, can be survived. In February, the American Red Cross turned a tweet about “#gettingslizzerd’’ on beer — sent by a young staffer, by accident, on the official feed — into a public joke that increased donations.

To be sure, it’s a harder to recover from underwear trouble. Even Weiner seemed to forget the rules of Twitter this week, as he launched into damage-control mode. When reporters pressed him on the rightful owner of those briefs, he huffed that that they should talk about important things.

He had it wrong. It was mastering that Twitter-perfect mix of critical and trivial, self-promotion and defamation, that raised his political profile in the first place. And out of fearlessness, egomania, or maybe blind trust in Twitter itself, Weiner figured out a better form of crisis control. By Wednesday night, he was tweeting again: “Wow, so many followers now. #IsThereTrollRemovalSoftware?’’

That’s lesson three: Look forward, not back. On Twitter, at least, the feed keeps rolling on.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com and Twitter @JoannaWeiss.