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.

  • http://www.tripharbor.com/blog Stuart MacDonald

    Well put 'thewie.

  • http://peterflaschner.com Peter

    There were certainly some lines crossed here, but I don't think the personal/professional boundary was one of them. While the reporter was using his personal Twitter account, he was very much acting in his professional role.

    Had he been having a meltdown about a parking ticket for instance, and had that meltdown resulted in being dragged in front of the boss, we'd have grounds for a discussion about personal vs professional. In this case though, it was all professional.

  • http://davefleet.com davefleet

    I agree, Mathew.

    This whole incident provides a useful reminder that when you post something online, you're often talking to many, many people rather than the singles you were perhaps intending to talk to. Bottom line: Think before you hit “post.”

  • http://tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com andrew

    more growing pains for twitter, been a few of them in the last week or so. thanks.

  • http://blogs.nortel.com/buzzboard Bo Gowan

    Mistakes like these can't easily be erased either. Yes the reporter deleted the posts (and took his blog offline), but if you google his name this incident already shows up on page 1, and will likely only rise as this story spreads.

    Unfortunately that's about the same as putting it directly in your resume.

  • http://www.twitter.com/Vikagutt Jon E Worren

    This case doesn't reflect well on either of the involved persons or their professional identities. It takes two to party and at any given time each had the option to take the high road and bow out. Especially given that this isn't a “live” conversation – although admittedly it is close to live – Twitter offers time to think between each of the 140 character messages – but in this case they let the egos take charge which is never a good thing.

    In both cases, their professional integrity has been damaged; The journalist – not only disgracing his employer, but failing to recognize that he is a public profile because of his work. He depends on access to busy people and would probably benefit from displaying less arrogance/rudeness while the marketing consultant has displayed a surprisingly limited understanding of personal brand management.

    My verdict: They should both submit themselves for twanger-management and apologize to each other – on Twitter.

  • http://guhmshoo.wordpress.com Guhmshoo

    There are no mistakes. People do things for a reason. She “tweeted” her frustration with the Post reporter knowing that he might see it (and also knowing that he might react in an explosive manner). She threw the first punch, it's as simple as that. Twitter has made it far too easy for people to say things publicly that ought to be said privately or directly to someone's face. Now we must worry that every private exchange could end up “tweeted” publicly on a platform that can't provide the proper context so needed in these cases. I've read many posts about this exchange and still don't know the back story. None of us do. They fail and we fail. If you're interested, I've posted a solution to this issue at my blog.

  • Gordon Haff

    Guhmshoo:
    >She “tweeted” her frustration with the Post reporter knowing that he might see it (and also knowing that he might react in an explosive manner).

    That's an assumption. Maybe yes, maybe know. There has been more than one occasion where I have been tempted to make a snarky comment on twitter about some email or briefing or whatever but haven't done so even though I would (and often do) make it by IM or email to a friend or colleague–more of less as a way of venting.

    Why not on twitter even if I leave names and companies out of it? Well, because in many cases some of the people involved follow me or may follow me and from the context it would be pretty obvious to them who I was talking about. And my intent is (usually) not to take a shot at them personally even if effectively in private.

    But we're talking pretty subtle behaviors here so I wouldn't automatically assume that something put into a twitter feed is necessarily aimed at a particular person.

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  • http://guhmshoo.wordpress.com Guhmshoo

    Gordon:
    “There has been more than one occasion where I have been tempted to make a snarky comment on Twitter…but haven't done so.” See, you used restraint. And why did you do that? Fear of reprisal? Unjustified? Pointless?

  • http://narutoflashgames.net Naruto Flash Games

    I agree with you! Is almost as you have read my mind!

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  • http://hummingbird604.com Raul

    Mathew,

    Excellent post. The truth is, twitter meltdowns are happening very, very open. My concern is that they become the norm rather than the exception and that newcomers to Twitter decide that just because people can have social drama over Twitter, they should refrain or protect their tweets or use some other form of non-openness. That would detract substantially from the enormous value of Twitter.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Stuie :-)

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I'm not sure I agree, Peter. I think you're right that it *should* have been professional, but the personal crept in. That's part of what I'm talking about — although the other part is the kind of thing you're describing, where what you do in your personal life impacts on your job somehow. I'm talking more about being a person, and how that jibes with trying to be professional on a social platform like Twitter.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I think you're right, Raul — as more people do that, it becomes less personal, and it loses some of its appeal (I think). Thanks for the comment.

  • http://gogijuice.freelife.com freelife

    For me it seems all to be professional .There is a professional/personal boundary which needs to be considered.Such type of meltdowns are happening in general.so one should take care when they are posting online.and one should be practical if such thing occurs suddenly.

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