Twitter's Political Fail

The social networking site Twitter has taken off this year. According to Alexa it is now the 15th-most widely used site on the web. Its micro-blogging format—users post 140 character messages for their followers to read—makes Twitter perfect for the rapid dissemination of information. During the disputed Iranian election in June Twitter became one of best ways for Iranians to report what was happening around the country in spite of the Iranian government's attempt to control the media. Twitter became so important, in fact, that the U.S. State Department asked it to delay its scheduled site maintenance.

As Twitter's influence has grown, it has found out that its site policies have become a political issue. Early this year, Twitter launched a list of 500 "suggested users" for new users to follow. According to founder Biz Stone, suggested users were chosen for their broad appeal to serve as an introduction to the site—much like a bookstore's selection of "staff picks." The list contained celebrities like Ashton Kutcher or Oprah who were active on Twitter, but it also typically included a number of relative unknowns who had developed a following on the site. Users who made the list—like tech blogger Veronica Belmont or the wise-cracking Jason Sweeney—generally saw the number of their followers skyrocket. The exposure was potentially so valuable that one internet executive offered Twitter $250,000 for a two-year spot on the list, although his offer was declined.

The suggested list was always controversial. But the controversy became political when watchdog groups noticed that it included two potential Democratic candidates for Governor of California, but no Republican hopefuls. Both San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and California Attorney General Jerry Brown were on the list—and each had somewhere around a million followers—but the none of the Republican candidates were. That could simply be because Newsom and Brown are both better known than any of the Republican candidates—of whom Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, was probably the most famous—or because the people who use social media tend to come from typically Democratic demographics. And the suggested user list did include a number of prominent Republicans, like current California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. But since the selection process was subjective it could easily also have been some kind of—conscious or unconscious—favoritism on the part of Twitter's executives.

Twitter, of course, is under no obligation to not to play favorites. But the mere appearance of favoritism threatened to drive away potential users, as well as attracted the attention of watchdog groups. So this week Twitter finally decided to do away with the suggested user list, with an eye toward eventually replacing it with some less arbitrarily generated list. It learned that a social networking platform is a public institution in the same way that a newspaper is. It has to avoid the appearance of partisanship or more and more it will find itself at the center of political battles.

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