Government officials shouldnt take Twitter so seriously

By Michael Hardcastle
On November 29, 2011

The Kansas governor's office recently made a laughingstock of itself after trying to get back at a teenager who tweeted disparaging remarks about Gov. Sam Brownback.

The teen, high school student Emma Sullivan, was attending a Youth in Government program Nov. 21 and tweeted during a speech by Brownback, "Just made mean comments at Gov. Brownback and told him he sucked, in person."

According to Politico, she didn't actually say anything to Brownback, but his staffers saw the tweet and she received a scolding from her principal. She was also asked to write an apology letter.

Sullivan refused to write the letter, the school decided she didn't have to and Brownback apologized for his staff's overreaction. The only consequence Sullivan faced was going from 65 Twitter followers to more than 15,000.

Beyond the obvious free speech issue, this incident brings up another issue: People are taking Twitter too seriously.

The governor's office apparently pours through every tweet using the governor's name to see what people are saying about him. The allegation that he "sucks" cannot be the worst criticism Brownback has received. After news broke that his office went after a high schooler, tweets probably became even harsher.

"Twitter" was named the top word of 2009 by the Global Language Monitor and the social media site is still going strong, with nearly every business or government entity jumping on the Twitter bandwagon.

Netflix's misguided attempt to spin its DVD-by-mail service off into a separate company called Qwikster was criticized for, among other things, picking a name for which a Twitter account already existed. That fiasco propelled another obscure tweeter to brief Internet fame, garnering him thousands of followers.

The New York Federal Reserve Bank is looking for a monitoring system to check public opinion across the Internet with a plan called "Sentiment Analysis and Social Media Monitoring Solution."

According to Fast Company, a business website, the Fed wants to see if "there is an ongoing trend of negative sentiment in the financial industry" and to track public sentiment for keywords.

Social media sites are obviously here to stay, but is tracking Twitter accounts really the best use of federal and private time and money?

Twitter allows users to post statuses of 140 characters or less without all the fancy bells and whistles of sites such as Facebook. It's good for letting your friends know what you're doing right now, reading funny comments or taking a peek into the lives of celebrities, but it's not something government officials should be so concerned about.

Courting favor on the Internet can also backfire.

Brownback's office was ridiculed for taking Twitter too seriously. Qantas, an Australian airline, offered a prize this month to tweeters who posted something positive about the airline with the hashtag #QantasLuxury. According to the Sidney Morning Herald, disgruntled fliers just used the hashtag to further badmouth the airline, with tweets such as "#QantasLuxury" is a plane that actually flies."

While sites such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter can be powerful media tools, they were created and are used largely for entertainment.

With a still struggling economy and pressing social issues, one would think the Fed and state governors wouldn't waste resources on monitoring what people say about them on the Internet.

Michael Hardcastle is a senior majoring in creative writing.

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