Why Anthony Weiner Got Burned by Twitter

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Andrew Gombert / EPA

Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner leaves a press conference at a hotel in New York, New York, USA, on 06 June 2011, after admitting a series of lewd online exchanges.

Representative Anthony Weiner is not the first public figure to be undone by an errant hand on his Twitter. (Let me be up front: there will be any number of unfortunate double entendres in this column.) But he's now the most prominent person to be damaged by the very immediacy and reach that make Twitter such a powerful tool. (Ahem. As I said.) One lapse of judgment — or one false click after several lapses of judgment — and a career implodes. For lack of a better word, let us call this increasingly common phenomenon twimmolation.

In Weiner's case, he had been using Twitter (and Facebook — let's not deny it the branding opportunity) to exchange crotch shots, raunchy notes and sundry other congressional perks with a series of young women. On May 27, while watching a hockey game, he inadvertently tweeted a photo of his erection in boxer briefs to his tens of thousands of followers rather than as a private, direct message to the intended recipient, a 21-year-old woman in Washington State.

The new-media scandal devolved in old-school fashion: he denied, he lied, he blamed enemies (a "hacker"). Then, as new women and photos emerged, he held a tearful press conference to confess: 'twas not hackage but his package.

The irony here is that Weiner had been a model social-media user. He didn't use Twitter to post anodyne press statements. He was prolific, using the same Brooklyn pugilistic voice he brought to his House-floor speeches. ("There is no law against stupid, but when is Comcast/NBC/Kabletown gonna fire Trump? #MaybeWeDoNeedSuchA​Law.") He made impassioned arguments, picked fights with peers, cracked wise and kvetched about sports. He practically taught a course in online persona building.

But unlike, say, the telephone, social media are both intimate (not just in that way) and broadcast. You can use them to contact one person or, if you have the following of a Sarah Palin, send a manifesto to millions, unmediated. In one fatal moment, Weiner crossed those wires.

His first mistake — O.K., second, after exposing himself to women not his wife — was to use the same forum for public business and private flirtation; don't tweet where you eat. Yet the broader principle of separating business and personal is not so simple. On Twitter or Facebook, an effective politician (or pop star or author) does connect on a personal level. So social-media use for public figures is full of contradictory rules. Be provocative but not offensive. Be authentic, but don't alienate people. Put yourself out there! But — ew — don't put that out there.

This is the essence of twimmolation: the very qualities that make someone popular on Twitter (mischievousness, authenticity, a quick wit) can backfire when taken to an extreme (offensiveness, oversharing, lack of impulse control).

Comedians have walked this line since long before the computer age, but they are not immune. In March, Gilbert Gottfried was fired as the voice of the Aflac duck after tweeting insensitive jokes about the tsunami in Japan. With social media, we're on a live mike, or even camera, all the time.

Don't get me wrong: real-time reaction is what makes social media awesome. I say this as the author of 8,000-plus tweets over two years. The instant feedback — replies or retweets, the Twitter equivalent of applause — is intoxicating, like a pleasure-center reward for a lab rat pulling a lever. You can see how it would appeal to an exhibitionist, self-destructive impulse. I'm not about to tweet a shirtless photo (my pecs lack definition), but I've laughed at and told inappropriate jokes in private. So far, I've had the common sense not to tweet anything ghastly. But do I have common sense everywhere, all the time? Does anyone?

Now, none of that absolves Weiner, who acknowledged as much. "What I did was a mistake," he said. "There's nothing inherently wrong with social media." He was right; they simply provide easy amplifiers for what is wrong with the socializer. Social media may or may not make us all famous for 15 minutes. But we can all be infamous in 140 characters.