Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer’s posts (tweets) on Twitter are usually innocuous - links to City news releases, wry comments about missing socks, descriptions of events she’s attending. But a few days ago there came a different one:

“Thinking about introducing a motion requiring police to pick up Minister Coleman next time he's in Vancouver and drop him off at Jenny Craig.”

And shortly after: “Per media reports, I’ve sent Minister Coleman an apology for my inappropriately personal tweet & regret any harm caused to him.”

It’s easy to forget that Twitter is public; to treat it as a private conversation with a group of close friends. And for most of us, that’s what it is. Nobody else but our friends should care about where we’re going for lunch or what we thought of the movie last night. But it’s not that simple. Not only can anyone “follow” you (though you can block potential followers) and by doing so automatically receive all your posts, but everything you post -- unless it’s a direct message to another person -- is searchable through the Twitter website and the numerous Twitter clients. And soon you’ll be able to search for tweets on both Google and Bing. And of course, the people who follow you can repost your tweets. A single inappropriate or controversial tweet can quickly become viral.

Reimer’s tweet referred to the legislation introduced by provincial housing minister Rich Coleman giving police the power to force people to go to homeless shelters. It also, unfortunately for Reimer, referred indirectly to Coleman’s weight (Jenny Craig being the trademarked name of a weight reduction program). Attitudes towards obesity are complex and fluid right now. Some people consider it okay to make fun of overweight people and to blame them for their condition; others consider it a disability like any other and feel it inappropriate to mock obese people because of their weight. This, no doubt, has added to the controversy over Reimer’s tweet.

She’s hardly the first public person to get caught up in a Twitter tempest. In recent days, British actor and writer Stephen Fry first threatened to leave Twitter and then reconsidered, all because one of his 900,000+ followers tweeted that Fry’s posts were boring. Actor Ashton Kutcher (who boasts more than 1 million followers) stirred up a bit of controversy when he took and posted a photo of his wife Demi Moore bending over an ironing board in her underwear, supposedly without her permission. More seriously, a Chicago woman was hit with a $50,000 lawsuit for tweeting about her mouldy apartment. In the suit, the landlord claimed that she “maliciously and wrongfully published the false and defamatory Tweet on Twitter, thereby allowing the Tweet to be distributed throughout the world.”

I’ve found out myself how even the most mundane-seeming tweet can be of interest to other people. I once used a golfing metaphor in a tweet (even though I don’t golf). Within minutes, two golf-wear stores started following me. Very creepy.

So be careful what you tweet. You never know when it’ll come back to haunt you. Just ask Andrea Reimer.