How To Explain Drinking-and-Tweeting Congressional Staffers?

Update: : video on MSNBC.com
Three staff members in the office of Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) were outed Thursday for tweeting about drinking on the job. The Congressman’s office reported that the three were fired within an hour of their learning about the tweets.

News reports identify the three as Seth Burroughs, Elizabeth Robblee and Ben Byers.

I learned about the story Thursday evening while attending the GeekWire holiday gala in downtown Seattle and agreed to be interviewed by local NBC affiliate KING5.

The reporter wanted to know if I had any idea why the staffers would tweet about the drinking. When I talked to one of my friends at the event, she hypothesized that we were seeing an age-related values disconnect.

I kept thinking: they were drinking Jack Daniels during business hours in the Cannon Office Building? This isn’t a Silicon Valley start-up or an after-5pm drink with the boss. One tweet screenshot, dated December 1, reads:

@TheRockeman1 My D2R team showed up this morning at 9am with shots of Jack. What a glorious and frightening way to kick off the month.

D2R is shorthand for “December to Remember.”

Infamous Tweets

  • 2009: Connor Riley (aka @theconnor) tweets about a boring job Cisco Systems; does he or does he not get the job?
  • 2009: David Le fired from summer job in D.C. for dissing Anacostia, making racist remarks
  • 2010: CNN fired senior Middle East editor Octavia Nasr over a tweet
  • 2010: Texas Radio sportscaster Mike Bacsik fired for racist tweet
  • 2010: The Scottish Labour Party canned candidate Stuart MacLennan after he “post[ed] a string of X-rated rants about political colleagues and rivals”
  • 2011: Journalist Nir Rosen resigned his fellowship at New York University after being criticized for a tweet about a fellow journalist who was raped in the Egyptian protests
  • 2011: Atlanta sports broadcaster Chadd Scott says he was fired for criticizing Delta, a major advertiser, on Twitter (not at work)
  • 2011: Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) resigned after lewd tweets.
  • 2011: Aflac fired Gilbert Gottfried, the voice of the duck, after “joke” tweets about the earthquake in Japan.
  • It’s possible that the public conversation on Twitter was a great big hoax. The trio is silent; Twitter accounts disabled. But I don’t think so. If so it was a very elaborate and long-running hoax.

    Inexperience isn’t an excuse. Robblee had worked for Larsen since 2007 and was drawing about $60,000 a year. She had worked for Sen. Patty Murray before joining Larsen’s staff. Seth Burroughs, a legislative assistant, had worked for Larsen since 2009. He was making about $45,000 a year. Byers joined the staff in 2009 and was promoted in June 2011; his salary was about $38,000 a year.

    Two Sides To This Coin

    In my mind, there are two issues at play here. One is the core behavior: drinking at work. The other is the public broadcasting of that behavior.

    Think about behavior that society judges to be taboo like date rape, driving drunk, armed robbery. Do folks that commit those acts talk about them publicly (in those terms)? I don’t think so.

    For the drinking-at-work to be a topic of even semi-public discussion, it seems like the participants have to believe that it’s not taboo. Did they think that they were living an episode of Mad Men?

    As far as those public tweets are concerned, most that are featured in the NW Daily Marker screenshots are @ tweets. That is, these tweets are directed to a person [beginning @twitter-user-name] and thus only show up in a third party’s Twitter stream if she is following both participants (the sender and the receiver). This Twitter behavior may have given the three a feeling that they were in a protected bubble.

    Or it may be that these stream-of-consciousness tweets weren’t considered out of bounds because the three didn’t think the behavior out of bounds.

    Or a cry for attention. (To look cool?)

    This behavior included more than tweeting about drinking. Burroughs also called his boss an idiot. Those writing about this story have assumed he meant Larsen, but he could have meant an intermediary (his real boss).

    To me, either set of behaviors is inexplicable.

    The reporter asked me if I had advice for listeners. I shared the tried and true: don’t tweet anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times and don’t tweet anything you wouldn’t want your mother to read.

    That may be common sense, but as you can see from the sidebar examples, common sense isn’t necessarily common.

    :: Cross-posted at The Moderate Voice
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    Author: Kathy E. Gill

    Digital evangelist, writer, teacher. Webmaster at King County Elections; educator at UW. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill, gplus.to/kegill, http://wiredpen.com

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    2 Comments

    1. Thanks, Paul — that’s an interesting insight.

      I agree that texting, and by extension tweeting, feels more like talking than it does like writing.

      I also think there is a parallel between your “bored” and my “cry for attention.” This reminds me of research that I learned about at TEDxRainier: Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children – “early television exposure (at ages 1 and 3) is associated with attentional problems at age 7.” http://www.aap.org/advocacy/releases/tvapril.pdf

      When Dimitri gave his talk, he talked about boredom and attention-seeking behavior being behaviors that are classified as attentional problems. http://tedxrainier2011.tumblr.com/post/12697580035/important-think-about-children-and-tv

    2. I’ve thought about this a lot and settled on something that, for me, is definitively how stuff like this happens: In the heat of the moment, people post to Twitter thinking that they’re talking when in fact they are publishing and the differences between the two are massive.

      If the Larsen staffers had just kept their little game to themselves — unprofessional as it was — or if anyone cited in the sidebar had just aired their thoughts in an audible conversation rather than posted them to Twitter, it’s likely that nothing would’ve happened and everyone would’ve just gone on with their lives. Again, this isn’t to say that the thoughts or sentiments expressed were in any way excusable.

      But people get bored and they want someone to talk to, and rather than go seek someone to talk to, they throw stuff out on Twitter, like fishing, because it’s easier: Here, I’ll throw this bait out there and see if anyone bites. That’ll distract me for a while. Obviously, that’s a huge mistake, though, because people think they’re just talking, when they’re, more accurately, yelling at the top of their lungs on a street corner.

      The catch, though, is that unlike yelling at the top of one’s lungs on a street corner, Twitter often allows others to know exactly who you are. If I go yell something stupid in Westlake Park and offend a few dozen people, I can still pretty safely slink off into a crowd and disappear back into anonymity. Not on Twitter. When you publish something stupid, Twitter is one big-ass paper trail, even if you think you’ve kept your account anonymous.

      Ultimately, people just have to remember that typed text, no matter how much it “sounds” like them talking, isn’t talking; it’s publishing.

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