There are several indisputable lessons to draw from the mistakes of Representative Anthony Weiner. Don't send photos you wouldn't want the press to see. Don't behave in a way you wouldn't want your wife to know. Don't lie to the public.
I worry though that nervous politicians may draw a different lesson: Get me out of social media. Unfortunately, if this becomes a
cautionary tale that chases public figures off of Twitter and Facebook, that would be a disservice to the elected officials and their constituents.
Social media has provided one more valuable avenue for voters to connect with the people who represent them. There are the remarkable examples: Newark Mayor Corey Booker responding to complaints over Twitter during last December's snowstorm by showing up at people's homes, shovel-in-hand. But the mundane, day-to-day use is just as important: constituents sharing their views, a politician issuing a statement, a link to a town hall meeting.
Feeling removed from our elected officials is a real problem in America. When they don't know us, they don't instinctively understand the issues we face in our communities. When President Obama insisted on keeping a Blackberry, he cited his fear that he would otherwise be caught in a bubble of close advisers; he longed for some way of hearing voices from beyond the bubble. Every politician faces that balancing act. With packed schedules and constant travel, they run the risk of putting up barriers between them and their voters.
Money is one way to break down that barrier, and donors are given access to politicians all too easily. Time is another way: if you have the time to attend public hearings in the evening or travel to your representative's office, you increase your contact. Not everyone can afford the money or the time — especially in a down economy when more people are stressed about their employment and working more hours for less pay.
Fortunately, there are ways to reach your public officials that require neither time nor money. You can write letters. You can send emails. You can find them on Facebook and Twitter. Of the three, social media actually gives you the clearest sense of hearing from your officials in a personal, authentic voice.
That's not to say that politicians all run their own Facebook accounts or read every message. Nor would I suggest that Facebook and Twitter should replace letters and petitions; they are simply additional tools that supplement, not replace, other forms of contact. But we, the public, should welcome every means that increases our back-and-forth with those who represent us...and we should encourage them to be as reachable in those spheres.
Now, is there a risk of "overexposure" in social media? Of course, there is. Like any form of communication, you need to be careful about what you choose to put out to the public. It wasn't, though, Twitter that led to Weiner's humiliation; it was his shameful behavior. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Jim McGreevey of New Jersey, John Ensign of Nevada, John Edwards of the Land of Self-Delusion all met their own public humiliations without the help
of new media tools. Sure, Weiner's poor judgement made the rounds much faster because of the speed of the internet; but that's a reason for politicians to behave better — not interact less.
Twitter doesn't get you into trouble on its own; but it can help you respond to your problems. That's one more important reason to engage: it gives you the ability to create your own media channel; to talk to the public directly; to run your own response operation more effectively. Just look at Sarah Palin. She can say the most insane things — but then she can use Twitter to explain to her followers what she really meant. And because they hear and love her voice, because they have that channel with her, they keep following her.
If you don't get on Twitter, the world may still tweet about you. If you do get on it, you can help create that world. Just stop playing around with your phone's built-in camera.
Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."