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Twitter creator Jack Dorsey visits D.C. to help twerps with tweets

May 20, 2009 |  1:48 am


Politicians aren't always on the cutting edge, to put it mildly. But despite technological hurdles that have long plagued government officials, Twitter is beginning to catch on in Washington, D.C.

Twitter chairman and creator Jack Dorsey was in the nation's capital recently to consult officials at the White House, State Department, Department of Energy and Congress on how to best engage constituents in 140 characters or less.

It's already begun to catch on in the White House and Congress, with about one-third of Congress members on Twitter, according to Tweet Congress. Now, other government agencies are pondering ways to use it. (For example, did you know the FBI is on Twitter?)

The Department of Energy plans to create an account that twitters brief tips on how to conserve energy, Dorsey said over lunch at an outdoor cafe a block from the White House.

The government is certainly interested in Twitter, but many officials are still hesitant to dive in, Dorsey said.

"It is a simple thing, but it's still so hard to get into," he said. "They're concerned with the best way to use the medium, with how much is too much, how best to utilize the followers that they do have."

Twitter, Dorsey says, is simply an evolution of already existent technologies. He places it along the same lines as ....

... e-mail, text messaging or cellphones. (After all, Twitter does have its roots set firmly within text message's length limitations.)

But some Congress members haven't mastered those practically ubiquitous forms of communication yet. That makes Twitter adoption even tougher.

"A third of the senators don't even have BlackBerries or have never used anything like it," Dorsey said. "Some of them don't have cellphones."

Plus, many politicians fear that twittering could lead to increased leaks of sensitive information. Just last week, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff accidentally tweeted his plans to run for Senate.

"There's a mentality of being very risk-adverse," Dorsey said. "Everything has to be checked. Every message going out to the public has to be checked, like, by five different people. And just that process kind of kills the momentum."

While Dorsey is providing some much-needed guidance, he said he didn't want to dictate how politicians (or anyone, for that matter) should use the service.

"The reason I'm here is not necessarily to tell people how to use Twitter," he said, "but to listen to how they want to use it and to listen to how they are using it."

Dorsey isn't the only one lobbying Congress to get on the popular social network. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill is perhaps one of its biggest champions. Dorsey learned in conversations with McCaskill that "a lot of senators are asking her how to do it," he said.

Dorsey's trip to Washington comes a few weeks after visiting with officials in Iraq. Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih joined Twitter after meeting with Dorsey. He has continued to update daily, for the most part, with musings about reconstruction projects and his day-to-day life.

"He has been awesome," Dorsey said, as the waiter placed a bowl of salad with chopped avocado in front of him. "He's very influential. He's making the government a lot more human and approachable."

Now, traveling the world to meet with governments and various groups about how to use Twitter is more or less Dorsey's main line of work.

Since birthing San Francisco's hottest Web start-up two years ago, the 32-year-old computer programmer is doing less of the coding he's done so resolutely for the last 17 years. He's finally getting to explore his other interest -- politics.

"Law seems to be the programming for society," Dorsey said. "Programming is all rules and conditions. That's exactly what government is based on. Some things work. Some things have major bugs."

-- Mark Milian

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Photo: Twitter creator Jack Dorsey interfaces with his iPhone, which he uses to access the social network. Credit: Mark Milian / Los Angeles Times