The perils of caging Twitter

With Twitter growing up, governments need to take it more seriously. Misguided attempts to regulate its use are not a good start.

In a classic case of confusing the medium with the message, the Victorian Parliament last week launched an inquiry into the use of social media within the gallery.

The inquiry will explore if restrictions or guidelines should apply to the media, public and members using social media to comment on proceedings. In other words, should we put rules on the use of Twitter use by people interested in our democracy?

The move prompted this comment from state Labor member Martin Foley, who argues it’s tantamount to “taking the community down a digital dead-end of command and control”. Instead, he says, the Victorian Parliament should look to the principles behind Barack Obama's Open Government directive, where transparency, participation and collaboration are the primary goals. 

The inquiry is set to be a lengthy process with submissions not closing until mid-February next year.

Meanwhile, Twitter continues to grow at a rapid rate. In 2011 Twitter reached 100 million active users, with around 2 million of those coming from Australia.

Twitter recently revealed plans to give every Twitter user a new profile page providing all their tweets, followers, favourites, and uploaded images.

The new “Me” tab is being seen as Twitter’s answer to Facebook, offering more insight into those using Twitter.

But by asking users to share more about their interests, and encouraging profile pages,Twitter is also getting into interesting territory on identity.

While Facebook and Google have done everything they can to prevent anonymous accounts, Twitter has never really taken this approach. Now that it is seeking new advertising revenue, what it knows about its users will become more important, and anonymous accounts less attractive.

At the same time, Twitter’s new Discover feature, which is essentially a replacement for the user-created hashtag, should help to deliver users a more valuable experience by helping them to connect their interests with that of their friends.

The ever-flowing nature of Twitter, where it can be difficult to miss what’s really important, combined with its 140 character limit, means Twitter is often dismissed as juvenile by social media sceptics.

Now that Twitter is growing up, brands and governments will be forced to take it more seriously.

Twitter now has a dedicated government and politics team, which recently launched an official account to track interesting uses of the site by governments and political figures. The @Gov account has been busy welcoming politicians that have already set up profile pages.

The US trend of Twitter Town Halls, where government leaders encourage citizens to tweet questions and feedback, has spread north of the border more recently, with the Conservatives this week hosting a 90 minute long live Twitter session on the subject of developing an open government strategy for Canada.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Indian government has threatened action against Twitter and Facebook if they do not remove "offensive" material from their sites.

Australia’s governments now need to decide which end of the spectrum they want to be on.

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