A few things have got me thinking about the etiquette of Twitter recently and the social norms that are developing around it. Many of these themes were addressed at the ‘Social media – a force for good?’ event held at NESTA yesterday that featured Biz Stone, co-founder and Chief Executive of Twitter; Reid Hoffman, Founder and Chief Executive of LinkedIn, and the inimitable Stephen Fry.

You can watch the whole event here, so rather than rehash their discussion, I want to highlight three instances where the unspoken social norms of Twitter were brought out into the open.

To Tweet or not to Tweet

The first was a reaction to my use of Twitter.

Earlier this week I launched the Urban Mashup blog with a post on the  ‘Social Media 09’  Mashup*event where I had been one of the speakers. As I was keen to get a debate going, I used Twitter to send a Direct Message (DM) to a number of the other speakers and participants that had attended the event. I also copied the DM to a few people that weren’t there who I thought might be interested.

I didn’t figure this was a big deal. After all, you didn’t need to be at the event to have an opinion about what I was discussing. However, I figured wrong.

I soon received this public rebuff from a recipient of my Direct Message:

1. I wasn’t at the event. 2. We’ve never spoken. 3. You DMing me a link to your write-up not exactly *social* media genius it?

Although I issued an immediate public and private apology (via DM) to the offended recipient, there followed something of a ‘Twitter spat’ between us that required an intervention from @paul_clarke, who knows us both, to help calm things down.

The harder they come, the Harder they Twitterfall

The second situation occurred at another Mashup* event where this time, I was not present. The story goes that during the panel discussion there was a delay in connecting the live Twitterfeed to the overhead display.

While this was getting set up, a member of the audience used the #mashupevent hash-tag to criticize Tony Fish, the Chair of the panel, using a four letter expletive and making a derogatory remark about his physical appearance. Moment’s later, the feed went live and the remark was made public to everyone in the audience, much to the shock of everyone in the room.

What happened next was interesting.

Emma – one of the Mashup* organizers – was so incensed by the remark that she identified the individual concerned through his Twitter ID (@swith) and attempted to confront him immediately after the event finished. His rather sheepish looking colleagues all claimed that he had legged it, but that didn’t matter because the Mashup* team had all the details they needed to get in touch with him and his employer (who had paid for him to attend).

Sure enough the next day, @swith sent a deeply apologetic email claiming that he was horrified when it appeared on the screen. But you’ve got to wonder why did he use the event hash-tag if he didn’t want it to be seen? Given that his company had paid for him to attend the event, who was responsible for his message? If the comment had been sent by email, would the consequences have been different?

The court of public opinion

My third observation comes from the national response to the appearance of the BNP’s Nick Griffin on Question Time.

According to Tweetminster (who did an excellent job of providing live stats throughout the broadcast), 99% of Tweets expressed anti BNP sentiment.  However, the comments received by message boards such as the BBC’s ‘Have Your Say’, were far more varied, and apparently the moderators were overwhelmed managing the flood of offensive comments.

Why the difference between sentiment expressed on Twitter and elsewhere? A recent YouGov poll points to a different Twitter demographic, but I think there could be something else in play.

Unlike a message board that enables you to post messages as ‘Angry from Aldershot’, Twitter displays your personal identity to the world. As a result, I suspect that people Tweet the version of themselves they want other people to see.

As Stephen Fry and the other participants at the #svuk event acknowledged, Twitter is blurs the public and personal even more than Facebook. If you break the unwritten social etiquette – as I discovered – there is a powerful and immediate feedback loop.

The Twist in the tale

Ironically, it seems my public spat on Twitter led to more people viewing and commenting on my original blog post. So was it a case of  lose friends and influence people’?

Photograph: Stephen Fry and Biz Stone at Social Media – A force for good? Courtesy of NESTA via Flickr


8 thoughts on “Social Media etiquette: How to lose friends and influence people

  1. In the “harder they come” story, interesting that twitter id is more authentic than real name. ie. if we only had a real name the individual would be anonymous. With an id, they are more accountable. There’s a lesson for semi-public figures (like advertisers) there.

    • Absolutely right Morgan. We’re all playing in new territory with this stuff and new social norms are being formed all the time.

      It used to be rude to look at your mobile phone or a laptop during a conference event, because it meant you weren’t paying attention to the speaker. Now it’s standard practice, and it feels strange to go to an event where people aren’t typing their responses into Twitter as you speak.

  2. Hi Jon, Interesting point about Twitter making your identity open. It makes me wonder that the ‘Angry from Aldershot’s of this world know that their views are dubious/offensive/downright wrong and would not submit them if their identity was known.
    Then again, free speech (however repugnant) is something that is important to any sort of democracy – Twitter being one of the largest and most vital in the world. #iranelection proved that it wasn’t all about telling people what you’re having for lunch.
    I think one advantage of Twitter is that you can have strong views, but lightly held; prompting open debate and giving you the opportunity to both persuade and be persuaded. And it’s this open-mindedness that means ‘Angry of Aldershot’ can always have his say. but will probably never get his way.

    • Thanks for the comments Snox. I love the phrase about strong views, likely held, which hopefully will come to characterize the ways we interact on open platforms like Twitter.

      But as was pointed out at the NESTA gig, it’s early days for all of this stuff, and every other communication tool has been co-opted by malevolent forces in the past.

      On the other hand, Wikipedia has proved that shared spaces can be protected, so there is some reason to remain hopeful.

  3. Hi Jon,

    Nice post …it is interesting watching how we deal with the new situations the tools which we have adopted so readily allow to occur. Mixing realtime and public can be very heady. Funny how hiding behind a username and clouded by instant emotion people forget they are on a stage being watched by 100’s and 1000’s of people. Regarding the @mashupevent incident it is interesting to note that @swith followed up his abusive public message seconds later by boasting to his followers that the tweet was live on the mashup screen – clearly aware of hastaggery this 2nd tweet didn’t use #mashupevent. And although I received an apology he didn’t apologise as publicly as he abused nor did he apologise to @tonyfish

  4. There’s certainly a strategy by the far right to populate public message boards – and we should be aware that it’s happening. The newspaper forums and comments sections are always full of bile.

    Twitter by default means that you’re only a few keystrokes away from being found and held to account. People can hide on comment sections far easier, and messages can be simply ignored.

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