Who in Washington is joining the Twitter revolution

Congressional Twitterers include Sen. John McCain, who last year said he didn't know how to use e-mail. But don't look for tweets from President Obama.

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    There’s an official White House Twitter feed (Twitter.com/whitehouse), which functions mostly as a bulletin board. But President Obama himself doesn’t tweet, nor do other White House officials.
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It’s almost worthy of a Monty Python skit – a government full of twits. Or so it seems, as government at all levels wades into the Twitter revolution.

Go to GovTwit.com and find what is billed as the largest directory of government Twitter feeds – local, state, and federal. This week, it passed 2,000 entries, or so the organizer announced in a tweet. Another site – Twitter.pbworks.com/USGovernment – provides a long list of US government Twitterers, mostly agencies, many of them defense- and science-related.

Even Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen tweets, as he proudly pointed out to his civilian sidekick, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, at a recent press conference.

Secretary Gates, like most people of his generation, doesn’t avail himself of all the cyber-gizmos out there for mass communication. But Admiral Mullen has taken the plunge.

“It meets needs for flexibility and adaptability, which we have to have in our forces,” Mullen said, referring to both Twitter and Facebook. Second, with a US force dominated by people in their early 20s, “this is how they live," he added. "It’s really important to be connected to that and understand it.”

At the White House, the use of Twitter is a work in progress. President Obama himself doesn’t tweet, nor do other White House officials. But there’s an official White House Twitter feed (Twitter.com/whitehouse), which functions mostly as a bulletin board. At times, it also solicits questions for town-hall meetings and other input from the public, such as a recent call for women athletes to send pictures marking the anniversary of Title IX.

Most entries from the White House contain a URL link to a full announcement, such as the one posted Thursday morning on H1N1 flu prevention, inviting entries for a contest to create the best public-service announcement. Before that, the White House informed its Twitter followers that the Department of Health and Human Services was “live-tweeting” its day-long flu summit on Thursday.

“We use Twitter in the White House as a government institution as opposed to the voice of a single individual,” says assistant press secretary Nick Shapiro in an e-mail.

Still, are there any guidelines for individuals at the White House, should they decide to tweet?

“No guidance really, all of this is evolving all the time,” Mr. Shapiro says.

Over on Capitol Hill, the ranks of congressional Twitterers are growing. A few members – Sens. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri, John McCain (R) of Arizona, and Bill Nelson (D) of Florida – made The Atlantic’s recent list of "The 30 Washington Insiders You Should Follow on Twitter."

Mullen, who started tweeting on April 3, also made the list. The presence of Senator McCain on there is noteworthy, following his famous admission during last year’s presidential campaign that he didn’t even know how to use e-mail – a point that surely hurt him among voters.

Others on the list, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have learned the pitfalls of Twitter – namely, that it’s way too easy to push the send button on a thought that, upon reflection, should not have been shared. When Sonia Sotomayor was nominated for the US Supreme Court, Mr. Gingrich tweeted that she’s a “racist.” Later, he walked back the comment.

At the Pentagon, Mullen has been joined in the Twitterverse by the new chief of public affairs, Price Floyd. The two feeds are different in an important way: Mullen issues statements, such as his most recent tweet, on July 5: “Off to Moscow for the Summit. Looking forward to signing the workplan for better cooperation with the Russian military.”

Mr. Floyd (at Twitter.com/pricefloyd) often solicits feedback, as in this tweet from July 2: “checkout the nytimes story by Jane Perlez and let me know what you think: http://bit.ly/13DApl.” (If that link doesn't work, try here.)

Mullen is avoiding feedback on purpose, says Capt. John Kirby, his spokesman. “He’s so high level. He’s being careful to avoid overly personalizing them,” Captain Kirby says. Mullen’s goal, he adds, is to communicate what he’s thinking and doing, not start a personal dialogue.

If nothing else, communications specialists have concluded that Twitter is here to stay. Last year, between May and December, use of Twitter and similar services nearly doubled – from 6 percent of adult Internet users to 11 percent, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

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