One of the best things about Twitter -- the online platform that lets users broadcast short messages to potentially millions of people -- is also one of the worst things about Twitter. The fun of instantly telling the world what you think can lead to spontaneous, ill-advised "tweets" you wish you hadn’t sent the minute you do.
You might call it "tweeter’s remorse."
Fortunately, there’s a delete button that can magically remove unwanted tweets from your online history.
Unless you’re an American politician. In that case, you’re out of luck.
A government accountability watchdog called the Sunlight Foundation has figured out how to bring deleted tweets from elected U.S. officials back from the dead. And it has begun posting them online for everyone to see at a website called Politwoops.
The idea, says Tom Lee, the director of the Sunlight Foundation’s technical wing, is to let the public see how politicians use Twitter to get their views out, even when they go off-message and reveal their true -- but perhaps politically incorrect -- feelings.
“Twitter’s become an increasingly important medium for politicians to communicate with their constituents," Lee says. "And a big part of our work is to make sure that those kinds of communications and communication channels are more accessible to everybody.”
That means visitors to the website will learn that Republican Senator John McCain, no fan of Russian President Vladimir Putin, deleted a sarcastic tweet
he made after seeing Putin’s election victory tears: “Dear Vlad, Surprise! Surprise! You won. The people of #Russia are crying too!”
They’ll also see how long the tweet was out there before McCain – or one of his sharp-eyed staff members -- hit the "delete" button: two minutes.
Politwoops debuted last week with some 3,000 resurrected tweets going back six months. The site’s proprietary software monitors Twitter feeds and archives and then automatically reposts any tweet by a U.S. elected official that was subsequently deleted.
Like the one from Republican Congressman Jeff Miller, who questioned President Barack Obama’s right to hold office in a tweet that asked, “Was Obama born in the United States?” He deleted it 55 minutes later.
Or one from former Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, who tweeted about himself in the third person
before a campaign event: “Newt is backstage. Ready to take the podium.” Elapsed time between tweet and delete: seven minutes.
Politwoops can also show politicians struggling with Twitter's mechanics. A tweet from Democratic Congressman Bill Owens during a floor debate declared, “Any politician that votes against this common sense bill will immediately lose my support and respect forever.” Six seconds later, the tweet vanished. His office later explained that the tweet was actually from a constituent. A staff member had accidentally retweeted it without giving the proper attribution.
Some people may be asking if Politwoops isn’t the online equivalent of going through someone’s garbage bin looking for embarrassing items.
The Sunlight Foundation insists the site isn’t aimed at shaming politicians but rather holding them accountable for something they’ve tried to erase from the public record with the click of a mouse.
“That courtesy -- of allowing our elected officials to pull back mistakes – it’s not something we’ve really ever extended to any other medium," Lee says. "Twitter has a delete button, but that’s not how we treat press releases or speeches.”
He says the majority of tweets aren’t embarrassing gaffes but rather revealing glimpses into the human side of politicians.
“It’s more kind of an intimate look at how this medium is being used," Lee says. "Sometimes the tweets are really charming -- whether it’s somebody talking about date night with their wife or what they thought about 'The Hunger Games' movie. And other times it’s just a view into how social media professionals are using this new medium to craft messages.”
The idea for Politwoops came from a Dutch group called the Open State Foundation, which has been running a similar website for two years. Lee says the Netherlands-based group approached the Sunlight Foundation and suggested that it might tie in nicely with their goal of making U.S. government more transparent and accountable.
Not surprisingly, journalists and government accountability groups love the site. The reaction from politicians, Lee says, has been “fascinating” for what it reveals about their ability to adapt quickly to new opportunities for publicity.
Some have been deliberately tweeting and deleting for the sole purpose of landing on Politwoops and grabbing some of the media attention the site has attracted since its debut.
John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, went a step further, tweeting about other things that have disappeared.
He wrote, “You know what else has been deleted? Jobs in the Obama economy. Where are the jobs?”
He deleted that after 36 seconds, knowing it would reappear on Politwoops.
Editor's note: This article has been amended to reflect an update from Representative Bill Owens' office.