Twitter: Respect its power

By · Thursday, March 4th, 2010

Yesterday’s news included an item about John Daly, the pro golfer who posted a Tweet that included a golf writer’s phone number. Daly invited his followers to call the writer and chew him out for a story he had written about Daly; the piece detailed some unflattering things that were in Daly’s PGA Tour file. (If you aren’t familiar with Daly, he has battled alcoholism for years and has often gotten in trouble with the tour for some pretty erratic and sometimes unprofessional behavior.) The writer received around 100 calls before Daly killed the Tweet.

This got me thinking about an incident in a class, and it calls to mind a good reminder for anyone: Think twice before you Tweet.

I had an interesting experience last year, when I discovered someone in class was Tweeting comments about it. I was teaching with two other profs, and it was an unusual approach — we were trying to “turn over” the class to them in many ways, letting them pick a project topic and lay a reporting/research plan of their own. We were inviting them to lead, and we would follow. We offered plenty of advice along the way, but early on we were content to let the class “wander” a bit and experience the ups and downs and the trying moments of finding a direction, setting a path and merging a dozen voices and ideas.

The person Tweeting actually was a guest, a friend of a student in the class; this guest wanted to sit in because he had heard the class was unusual and our multimedia approach sounded fun and different.

Students had their laptops open, most of them running Twitter. Halfway through the night, the prof next to me gave a rib poke and pointed to the top Tweet on his machine:

“This is an interesting class,” our guest had Tweeted. “But I am very concerned the professors don’t know what they’re doing.” And later: “I could help these guys. I hope they can include me. If they do, I’ll ask my friends.” He offered more pointed criticisms in other posts.

During the break in the three-hour class, I pointed out to him that everyone was reading his Tweets in the class, including the professors (and possibly our funders, who might be alarmed to hear how clueless these professors were). Our visitor seemed quite taken aback and genuinely surprised. It hadn’t crossed his mind that the Tweets could be seen not only by us, but in real time. Or that regardless of the merit of his comments, they were rude at best for a guest.

In the end, none of us lost any sleep over the incident. But this kind of thing, and the Daly story, are sharp reminders that Twitter is, indeed, a powerful tool, not a toy, and it may have results and consequences beyond our imagination. And of course, it is another chapter in life’s lesson about privacy (and how little there is) in the digital age.

Few things are “just between you and me” anymore. Even if you don’t make your digital communication open to everyone, someone else might. Whatever you say is only a “forward” button or Retweet symbol away from wide publication to your boss, your friends, your family and thousands of others you don’t even know.

Steve Davis

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