To tweet, or not to tweet?

Twitter has gone mainstream, big time. Much has been written about Twitter etiquette, or "Twittiquette," which is concerned mainly with what to do and what not to do on the microblogging service itself. But what about socially acceptable rules for when -- or when not -- to use Twitter at all?

Case in point: President Obama met in a "closed door" session with House Republicans this week. The press was not invited in order to allow the president and congressmen to have a frank conversation outside the glare of media scrutiny. But Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra twittered his impressions of the president's presentation in real time.

Is this OK? And if twittering away during a private meeting with the president isn't unacceptable, how about during outpatient surgery? A U.K. blogger and Twitter early adopter named Kevin Leitch recently Twittered his way through a vasectomy .

One of the earliest controversies involving Twitter was the live-blogging by a father of his daughter's birth , which may have included more medical detail than some followers, or possibly his wife or doctor, may have expected.

Is it OK for reporters and editors to tweet live events? By doing so, the news is already out there by the time colleagues get out of the event and back to their laptops. Is that fair?

Reuters editor in chief David Schlesinger recently tweeted his way through the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Which is fine, except that he essentially scooped his own reporters who were scrambling to cover the story.

At least two reporters, Ken Shepherd and Chris Cillizza , who enjoy hard-to-obtain access to daily White House press briefings, are twittering news from the briefing room every day.

By the time reporters file those stories, and they're edited and published, the news is old to the Twitter users who were following the tweets.

CNN has gone Twitter-mad, with several anchors featuring Twitter answers on screen, including and especially Rick Sanchez . I even saw CNN promote an upcoming segment by showing the anchor typing a question into the Twitter "What are you doing?" box in real time.

Integrating Twitter into TV news was novel at first, but do viewers really want to turn on the TV to watch the news anchor using another medium?

If it's OK for reporters to scoop each other or use Twitter on live TV, how about during a funeral? Back in September, a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News tweeted during the funeral he was covering for the newspaper. Or how about during a wedding? Or a regular service at a church, mosque, synagogue or temple?

Is it OK to use Twitter in court? What if you're on the jury? Is it acceptable for Marines, sailors and soldiers to tweet their experiences while on active duty? How about observers watching surgery, or an autopsy, or an execution? Is it OK for lawyers, psychiatrists, doctors and others to use Twitter while they're speaking with clients or patients? How about during business meetings or negotiations?

Twitter is so new, and crosses so many old boundaries of human communication that we have no rules, guidelines or acceptable behaviors established for its appropriate use.

Why Twitter is different

The potential violation of etiquette wouldn't come from the act of paying attention to a phone or laptop and typing when you should otherwise be paying attention. Those rules have been largely established.

The issue is that Twitter makes potentially private situations instantly public.

There are countless situations in which everyone in the room assumes privacy or even "Vegas Rules" (what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas). But when someone is twittering about those situations, the event suddenly becomes public, sometimes very public.

Posting on Twitter makes those messages almost instantly searchable by anyone in the world with a computer. You don't even need a Twitter account to use the Twitter search feature. Moments later, the messages are indexed and available on Google. People doing the right search will find them even if they've never heard of Twitter.

And unlike, say, blogs, Twitter posts go viral fast. Users do something called "re-tweeting," which means they paste a message someone else posted, add the letters "RT" to the front, then re-broadcast it to their own followers. Then some of those followers re-tweet, and so on. By this serial "re-tweeting," Twitter posts can spread to hundreds of thousands of Twitter users in minutes. Many of those users are bloggers, reporters and others with access to other forms of broadcasting.

Is that fair to the other people in the room who believed the situation was private? Some might argue no, it's not right to publish private events and conversations. But others would say, yes, it's 2009 and microblogging has become an integral part of human culture.

The truth is that a widely agreed-upon answer to this question doesn't exist yet.

What do YOU think? Follow me on Twitter and send me a Direct Message letting me know.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office . Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com , follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed .

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