This afternoon, the KevinRuddPM account posted a St Patrick's Day message:
Wishing everyone a happy St Patrick's Day - especially Australian's with Irish heritage!The apostrophe in "Australian's" is incorrect. About twenty people noticed this inability to punctuate correctly, and a few hours later, the Prime Minister's account had a new St Patrick's Day message, using the correct punctuation.
What is mildly interesting is that whoever is operating the PM's account deleted the original, incorrect message and did not bother to acknowledge that a mistake had been made. If you examine the PM's Twitter acount here you will see only one message, but if you look at this Twitter Search result, you will see both messages - you can delete a message that you sent from your own account, but it will still show up if you search for it.
This is, of course, really not very important in itself. So the PM (or whoever is operating his Twitter account) made a punctuation mistake. So what?
What matters is that this shows how politicians like to operate. Make a mistake, hide the evidence, correct the mistake and pretend it never happened. This is because politicians are usually control freaks, thanks to the world they operate in where even small mistakes are jumped on by their enemies. Being a control freak is normal behaviour for a politician, and in fact it would be incompetent for a politician NOT to keep tight control over their environment. If you've ever listened to the Federal Parliament's Question Time on the radio or seen it on the TV, you know how this works.
However, politicians are now trying to use social networking services like Twitter and Facebook to get in touch with people, and the sort of behaviour that works with other politicians doesn't work at all in that sort of environment. People expect to be engaged with, they expect their questions to be answered, they don't expect people to use their Twitter or Facebook accounts just as a way to punch out media releases. But Australia's politicians have, so far, mostly done just that.
I'm not saying that politicians should personally be on their Twitter or Facebook accounts. We pay them to do a difficult and busy job, and I'm sure they have a lot more to do than to answer my concerns about, say, Translink and Brisbane's public transport. So I don't mind the fact that most politicians' social networking accounts will be operated by other people.
What I do mind is the complete lack of engagement. If social media is going to change politics, it's because it makes it really easy to discuss issues, and easy to get together and decide what to do. If politicians want to take advantage of that - if they really are interested in people's feedback and want people to start coming up with new ideas - then those politicians are going to have to change the way they act. Empty promises and bland assurances won't be enough to convince people who band together to find an answer to a problem.
Either politicians will start learning to use social networking on the Internet to engage (indirectly) with a lot more people than they ever have before, or people will use the Internet to make politicians more and more irrelevant.