Why exactly is mainstream media going ga-ga over Shashi Tharoor’s tweets? Some say, its plain jealousy – he has 600,000+ followers, something that media can only dream about! But the simple fact is that, in case of media, people pay (most of the times) to gain access to what they publish/ air. On twitter, its free-for-all and as Anil Dash explained in his ‘Nobody has a million twitter followers‘ post, not all of that 600,000 may be tuned in, all the time, and not all of them read all of Tharoor’s tweets.

The thought I’m putting forward here is not about mainstream media’s reaction – its about what exactly is Tharoor up to, on twitter.

No, there’s nothing wrong with a politician or an elected representative sharing his life on twitter. But, is Tharoor promoting himself on twitter? Nothing wrong with it, but let’s consider that from other perspectives.

If he was an employee, he’d perhaps want to promote his role or position/ organization via twitter and gain something – respect from peers…and may leads too!

If he was an entrepreneur…same thing again – share knowledge, build relationships, gain respect from peers – leads et al.

But, Shashi Tharoor’s description on his verified twitter profile says, ‘author, humanitarian, peacekeeper, columnist, former UN Under-Secretary General, now Minister of State for External Affairs, Govt of India’.

Author – can promote his books, gain peer respect, build network for next book.
Humanitarian/ Peacekeeper – I’ve no idea what these titles can do on twitter.
Columnist – Interact with readers, explore ideas for future column.
Former UN Under-Secretary General – I pass.

Minister of State for External Affairs? He’s responsible for a set of roles under the ministry. He’s not particularly looking for feedback and ideas to implement via twitter. A simple glance at his tweets show that his most frequent form of tweet is the exotic variety – from interesting countries, doing interesting things. The rest of the kind of tweets are incidental.

He cannot get a news channel to follow him as he travels to these exotic locations…and report about who he meets and about his reactions. So, he tweets. Do they have anything to do with his role as a minster? I’m not entirely sure. But, the last time someone used twitter to promote himself while being employed by an organization – he was criticized on the web…not by everybody, but quite widely read and discussed. I’m referring to Ford’s Scott Monty.

As Edelman’s own David Armano explains in a February 2009 Adage piece, “If you are going to have your company play on the social web, then you have to be ready to play a full contact sport which includes unpredictable scenarios”. So very true. He further adds,

Some will say that separation of church and state is the way to go. Always lead with the brand. I’m not sure it’s that simple. Take a look at Frank Eliason’s (@comcastcares) personal blog. Frank talks about life, his family and, yes, his work.  While @comcastcares on Twitter leads with the service that Frank and his team provides, Frank has swapped the company logo for a picture of himself. It’s not always business on the social Web, often times it’s personal, and this is what makes it work. In my humble opinion, while we can try to compartmentalize our “personal brands” with the brands we work for, the more we try to separate them, the less human it becomes. The social web thrives on personality, mixing a “personal touch” with a professional service.  When Frank talks about life and business on his blog, it makes him not only a person, but an employee like many of us. And vice-versa on Twitter, which is why I assume he ditched the Comcast logo for a photo of himself instead.

So, what we may be looking here, with regard to Shashi Tharoor, is perhaps India’s first ‘Brandividual’ – the word Armano coins in the above Adage piece.

The only problem is that Tharoor’s employers (the Government of India – not the voting public) have not yet figured a way to play on the social web. They may not even be aware of the possibilities of the social web. What the government requires is a social media usage guideline for its members – and they’re not alone in this case…many, many Indian companies need such a document too.

One of the basic tenets in such documents is to state very clearly that the opinions shared online are the employees’ own and that his/ her employer does not necessarily endorse them. It’s a standard guideline, but something that Mr. Tharoor seems to have conveniently forgotten when tweeting opinions that may irk his Government.

Even if the Government had such a document, Shashi would be targeted due to his first mover advantage. So, while his travel exotica seems perfectly appropriate on twitter, his selective opinion-sharing on the way his government functions does not. Why? Simply because, he’s not running the government alone – he’s part of a larger organization and as a member, he may have to adhere to its rules. No, it does not have rules for social media engagement yet, but that he should not share contradictory opinions is as simple as you not sharing opinions that are diametrically opposite to the group/ organization you belong to. It just makes your parent organization look silly. This is not a matter between friends, where we can agree to disagree and go on with our own ways.

The question is, would Tharoor have got all his 600,000 followers if he was only a book author or former UN Under-Secretary General? I’m not so sure, but his minister-tag is as strong a draw as Shah Rukh Khan’s actor tag is. He is opening a channel of communication with the Government as much as actor opens with his otherwise guarded personal life. So, would Shah Rukh tweet that he’s not happy with some scenes in My Name Is Khan? Knowing actors, he just might, to fuel more interest in the film, but the point is that his criticizing some of the policies of his own Government is seen as he promoting himself…sometimes at the expense of the Government and that could be the reason behind all the media attention. Scott got the attention from the web. Tharoor does too, from the media. Rightly so.