In today's carefully stage-managed Washington, the last thing anyone expects from members of Congress is candor or spontaneity. So perhaps it's not all that surprising that Representative Pete Hoekstra unwittingly triggered a maelstrom of criticism last weekend when he Twittered about his trip to Iraq. "Just landed in Baghdad," the Michigan Republican typed on his BlackBerry, alerting the nearly 3,000 people who have signed up to follow him on the social-networking service of the trip that he and five others, including House minority leader John Boehner, had embarked on. Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, took exception to the criticism from both the left and right that he had somehow jeopardized the security of those on the trip through his messages, or Tweets. "On this trip, nothing was classified as secret or top secret or anything like that," Hoekstra told TIME. "A whole range of people know about the trip, people with no security clearances, including my wife." (See the top 10 celebrity Twitter feeds.)
It's a safe assumption that none of the estimated 6 million Twitterers know Hoekstra as well as his wife, or even know him at all in the real world. But that, of course, is the appeal of the micro-blogging service. Folks can update their followers on what they are doing, thinking, enjoying or avoiding, all in 140 characters or less. For Representatives used to having their messages and contacts heavily filtered, Twitter offers a real-time connection with constituents and the media, for better or worse. (Read "Why Everyone's Talking About Twitter.")
Following President Barack Obama's groundbreaking success in recruiting and organizing millions of supporters on Twitter and other social sites such as Facebook, Qik, YouTube and Flickr, a growing number of Representatives are tapping into domains that many previously reserved for their grandchildren. "The word Facebook is becoming like a drinking game in our conference," says one senior GOP aide. "We encourage members to sign up, but also encourage them to allow their staff to help them navigate it. We want them to be careful before members begin writing on their constituents' walls." (See the 50 best websites of 2008.)
Indeed, most of the 65 Twittering Representatives rely on their staffs to post links to press releases and notices of public events. "The feed is live now on https://dodd.senate.gov. The town hall will start shortly," reads a typical Tweet on Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd's Twitter page. But a few members like Hoekstra are braving uncharted territory, providing a unique window into the daily machinations of the nation's power brokers and, in the process, establishing a new form of civic journalism.