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March 30, 2009

When Twitter Isn’t Appropriate

We’re at a point in the evolution of the information age, the age of self-publishing, Web 2.0 or whatever we want to label where we are in our increasingly wired world, that, if we do not establish some parameters of behavior, we’ll lose it all. This notion struck me as I read an article by Maryclarie Dale of the Associated Press called, “Tweets Unwanted Twist At Trial.”

The article told the story of Eric Wuest, a juror in a Philadelphia trial who tweeted that the verdict in a high-profile criminal case was forthcoming. While he did not disclose information about the verdict, or the trial for that matter, he violated the normal judicial instructions to not disclose or discuss the trial at hand with anyone. Wuest didn’t get in trouble, other than to be given a stern talking to by the judge in the case, but he did something we as an on-line community need to understand and take a stand against.

Social media is not a special place on the Internet where rules and rights are blurred. Sure, U.S. and International law are far behind in providing fair protection and policing of the web. If a server is in Switzerland, did you post that libelous statement in Switzerland or in the comfort of your Silicon Valley office? Yes, there will forever be trolls and turds, black hat sneaks and cyber criminals who continually maneuver through the system, committing crimes and finding loopholes. But for the rest of us, the fair majority, we need to exercise a little bit of common sense.

Twitter is not a forum where free speech can run rampant. Neither is Facebook or any other social forum, on-line or off. Eric Wuest probably minded his P’s and Q’s when chatting it up with friends at a Friday night cocktail hour. Why would he assume he didn’t have to on Twitter where everyone and their brother can see what he wrote?

I harken back to the key hang-up most people have with understanding social media or the Internet word. It’s not about the tools and the technology. It’s about a mechanism of communications. You aren’t allowed to communicate sensitive information about a trial if you’re a juror, or proprietary information about your companies business if you’re an employee. So why would you do it online? The rules still apply, even if the law is unclear about which ones apply where.

The first rule I give company employees when teaching them how to be representatives of their employer in their respective online spaces is, “Don’t be stupid.” Sure, I borrowed it from Flickr or Microsoft or some other list of guidelines, but it’s appropriate. Apply a different filter if you must: “When in doubt, don’t.”

Our interconnected world is reaching into unprecedented omnipresence. The thoughts and notions of random people are now being broadcast around the world in lightning speed. For most people, few will notice. But the fact that it’s there changes the impact and measure of one person’s opinions or experiences. It’s permanent. It’s indexed. It’s searchable. If it’s inappropriate or even illegal, you’ve shot yourself in the foot.

Eric Wuest probably should have been held in contempt of court. It would have sent a stronger message to all of us who love social media tools so. Mind your P’s and Q’s folks. If you don’t there will be repercussions. No matter how personal your space on these networks is, we can see it. It doesn’t just belong to you.

Jason Falls is the director of social media for Doe-Anderson, a brand-building agency in Louisville, Ky., specializing in building brand enthusiasts. A public relations professional by trade and writer by craft, Falls is co-founder of the Social Media Club Louisville. This blog is his own, contains his opinions and observations and does not necessarily reflect those of Doe-Anderson or its clients. For more email him at