Twitter: The personal becomes public

by Mathew on February 13, 2009 · 18 comments

By now, many people — even those who aren’t on Twitter — have probably heard about an incident earlier this week involving a reporter at the National Post (a daily newspaper in Toronto) and a “Twitter meltdown” that he had, in which he posted half a dozen obscenity-laced messages directed at a marketing person he had tried to interview. In fact, if you Google the term “Twitter meltdown,” it’s the fourth result. I’d rather not go into too much detail about it, since I know both of the individuals involved personally, but if you need to know the specifics there is an overview here. In any case, I know that it has been a difficult week for them both (although in very different ways).

Obviously, the reporter went way beyond the norms of civilized conduct — not just the norms on Twitter, but pretty much anywhere other than the federal prison system. What started as a simple frustration with another person quickly escalated into abuse. But that’s not why it got so much publicity on Twitter and elsewhere, getting mentioned in Valleywag, the Telegraph in London, ZDNet, and even getting re-tweeted by the Stephen Colbert Show (the barometer of all that is newsworthy in our society). It got passed around so quickly because it was a reporter who had a meltdown — a professional who let his emotions get the better of him.

Jennifer Leggio at ZDNet even argued in a blog post that the marketing person who was the brunt of this attack was also to blame, because she was unprofessional enough to mention (without using any names) that she had gotten a rude call from a reporter. As I responded to Jennifer on Twitter, I think that’s the wrong call. Could this person’s Twitter posts have been a bit more discreet? Sure they could. But she is human, and she let slip a post that revealed her emotions, and blew off some steam about a rude phone call. Should that no longer be allowed on Twitter?

One of the reasons I think many people are drawn to Twitter is that — like a lot of other social media tools — it provides a kind of personal touch to our relationships, even with people we don’t know. Is that a good thing? I think so, or at least most of the time I think it is. Occasionally, however, that blurring of the line between the personal and the professional gets crossed, and it can cause problems. The reporter in this case certainly found that out, after he was dragged into his boss’s office and forced to delete his Twitter posts (which someone had already thoughtfully made a screen grab of).

Although this was an extreme case, it certainly wasn’t the first time and I don’t think it’s going to be the last time someone crosses the line between personal and professional. That’s the risk of “publicness,” as Jeff Jarvis and others like to describe it. And it is only increasing. Maybe it will make us all a little more accepting of our human failings — or maybe not.

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