AS MORE world leaders enter the social media, will Twitter purge its platform?

An old joke in a Catechism class. A priest asks the laity, “How was my sermon on the milk of human kindness?” A young man put his hand up, “It was good but I wish it had been a little condensed!” Guess what, in less than a week, brevity could become more than the soul of wit on the social media with possibly a sermon in 140 characters. Please welcome Pope Benedict XVI to the world of Twitter. The head of the Catholic Church hasn’t tweeted just yet but there are, at the time of writing this column, almost five lakh followers. I will not be surprised if his handle @Pontifex touches the one-million mark even before the first tweet! The media advisor at the Vatican reveals that the Pope will start tweeting from December 12 in eight languages. That’s a huge progressive attempt to connect with generation next. From mass being said in Latin and the laity facing the wall, not the altar, decades ago, to the prospect of tweeting what you preach, the Church has come a long way.

Although a picture of the Holy Father using an iPad had appeared in a section of the Western media last year, we are told that he will have a team to manage his Twitter account and it will get his approval for every tweet that is posted.

As the Pope and many more world leaders, both religious and political, hop on to the social media bandwagon, Twitter Inc, nestled in California, has an old challenge to meet. It needs to do much more to weave in safeguards against abuse and hate speech on its platform. The option to protect your tweets and accept followers just won’t do. It is like asking a person who enters a discotheque to sit in a corner and keep away from the dance floor to avoid getting molested or attacked by vicious elements. The focus should be on having some check on the entrants or at least deploying bouncers to evict trouble makers who spoil the party. To those who take the line ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’, I’d say ‘how about an exhaust fan?’ to put out the bad air.

Unlike Facebook, where by default, it’s up to you to accept friend request and even allow subscribers, Twitter involves engaging with vast sections who may be total strangers — many of them suitably masked and ready to pounce on you, singly or in packs, over a view that may not conform to theirs. While I do agree that those in public life need a slightly thicker skin and more patience to handle the adulation and the negativity, I just cannot agree that celebrities should take personal attacks in their stride. ‘You’re a celebrity. Be prepared to get mobbed if you enter a public space’ is a ridiculous argument. Excuse me, where is our sense of decency?

Privacy is not the exclusive preserve of the common man. Everyone is entitled to it. If sections misbehave with public figures, and then adopt the puerile stance ‘You are what you are because of us’, the latter may just move away or go into a shell. Or outsource their accounts to professionals, as some leaders are already doing. This will turn celeb-public interaction into a meaningless charade. And rob well-meaning users of opportunities to reach out to achievers. It’s not just about time. Haranguing can drive away good but sensitive celebs, and end up determining whether a handle is hands-on or remote-controlled.