Being Twitter deft or Twitter dumb: is that the question?

Social networking has assumed immense importance in our lives. Over the last few months, we have seen how a tweet, a profile status or personal information on Facebook can cost some people their job, marriage, image and much more.

In fact, there is an ongoing debate on whether blogs, tweets and other information we get from Facebook is "news" or not.

Is social networking a part of the new fourth estate? In that case, everyone who tweets or blogs is a journalist. And everything pertaining to journalism--from what is news to how responsible is the reportage--will have to be redefined.

Well, I am sure this debate won't end in a hurry.

Recently, a tweet posted by Shashi Tharoor, minister of state for external affairs, took up much newsprint and news time. The government of India is on a major austerity drive and has been asking ministers and bureaucrats to travel economy class (while traveling domestically).

Tharoor responded to a journalist's query on Twitter on whether he will travel to Kerala in "cattle class" (read: economy class). In response, Tharoor said he would travel "cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!"

What followed was a big hue and cry over this tweet. In India, cows are (indeed) holy and politicians are expected to toe their party's line. "How dare he refer to economy class as cattle class?" "Why is he insulting cows and economy class travelers?" "Tharoor must resign". "We should take appropriate action against him". These were just some of the reactions reported in the media.

Are we going to judge our ministers by what they say on Twitter? Is this reason enough to sack someone? How about sacking people who are corrupt and inefficient?

While this controversy was on, television channels were running from pillar to post to get reactions of various Congress party and opposition party members. There were debates on every channel. Did we really need to make such a big deal out of a 140-character microblog?

Thankfully, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh brushed Tharoor's remark as a joke, even though a Congress chief minister demanded Tharoor's resignation and the party spokesperson said the Congress party would take "appropriate action at appropriate time". Expectedly, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party also slammed Tharoor for the "cattle-class" tweet.

Tharoor ultimately apologized, on Twitter! "It's a silly expression but means no disrespect to economy travelers, only to airlines for herding us in like cattle. Many have misunderstood," Tharoor said, in a tweet.

He also explained that by the word "holy cows" he was not referring to any individual. "Holy cows are NOT individuals but sacrosanct issues or principles that no one dares challenge. Wish critics would look it up."

The minister said he had learnt a lesson from the episode. "I now realize I should not assume people will appreciate humor. You should not give those who would willfully distort your words an opportunity to do so." Yesterday, Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party president, asked Tharoor to tweet with tact.

While Tharoor may have learnt his lesson, I wonder what lessons we can draw from India's "Twittergate". Do we need to lay down a new set of etiquettes for social networking Web sites? Should we keep humor and sarcasm out of our tweets? How Twitter dumb would that be? And how can we apply such etiquettes to citizens of other countries (who would read, re-tweet and respond to our tweets)? Such (self-imposed) guidelines will give politicians more reason to stay away from Twitter and remain inaccessible and unanswerable to the commonman.

I wonder if there are any easy answers to the various Twittergates happening all across the globe. But one thing is for sure--as more people get hooked on to social networking Web sites, we will see more controversies. And news will continue to get redefined.

In the end, the winner (in all such controversies) is social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. And Twitter savvy people like Tharoor (who has over 2,08,000 followers post the "cattle class" controversy). Never underestimate the power of those 140 characters!