“These views are all my own and not my employers”
Many people have this statement or variations of it in their twitter biography. And it’s very easy to see why. Twitter is a great tool for both professional networking, and personal socialisation. It is possible to set up multiple twitter accounts, but most people have just the one and use it for both of these activities, tweeting sometimes socially, sometimes professionally and very often in a hybrid format which combines the professional and social in the same way as a coffeebreak at a conference.
This rider about personal views seems quite comforting at first. It appears to set up a buffer between your absolute professional self (the one which gets up and goes to work and is focused on what needs doing and expects a paycheck rather than a P45 at the end of each month), and your private persona who may be a bit feister, a bit more feckless, a bit more knockabout, a bit more random or whatever else you are when you are not ‘working’. The quasi-legalistic phrase thus functions as a kind of mantra or prayer in the biography of the twitter user, an offering to the gods of social media to ensure that what happens on twitter stays on twitter.
The only flaw with this is…the whole thing. First off, just because something sounds impressive and a bit legal does not make it so. Secondly how many employers, faced with an employee who brought them into disrepute through their tweets would get scared off by reading ‘tweets are all my own views. not my employers’? In other words, do these words offer any real protection or are they just comforting but ultimately useless.
If you used your twitter account only for personal tweets you may stand a chance of defending yourself, but if you are in that very common space where personal and professional are intermingled so closely that it is not clear where one stops and the other starts, then it would be very easy for your employer to argue that you have used your professional standing to build your network of followers and therefore the same rules on professional conduct should apply to this as to your engagements in real (non social media) life. Lee Davies argues here in an excellent posting, that personal and professional identities go beyond dichotomy or trichotomy and are multichotomous, that is we construct and present many versions of our selves using social media, and the more selves we have, the more likely we are going to run into problems as Blackadder did in the episode where he tried to have a riotous drinking competition in one room and have his puritan aunt and uncle to dinner in another (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krgUVduKFL4)
I won’t go into the many very real problems which professionals (including teachers) have got into using twitter. Suffice to say that balancing a social media identity for someone working in a school is very hard as public perception of their ‘teaching persona’ will inevitably govern judgements about how they behave on social media.
The issue here is that social media is a phenomenon of the 21st century. Social networks can be seen as an embodied form of postmodern theory which states that there is no such thing as a single identity, but rather people are created from a constantly overlapping myriad of identities where very little is stable. These identities are rooted not in the tangible physical world, but rather in the slippier world of language, where the discursive structures we create do far more to define us than our physical characteristics. But your employer is not a post modernist, they are still very much of the 20th century and likely to judge your tweets as belonging to a single coherent self, a single coherent self having to account for why you sent particular tweets which have not gone down well with HR. You could try a Lacanian defence if you do end up in hot water, but you probably won’t get very far.
So I conclude, twitter is like russian roulette. Somewhere there’s a particular combination of 140 characters that you are going to tweet and seconds later your torso will slump on your computer keyboard as you realise you’ve just pulled the trigger on a live round and shot yourself in the head. Protecting your tweets is not a solution either, you should still assume with protected tweets that everyone can read them all the time as they can be copied, screen-shotted, RTed and so on despite the protection. The only genuinely safe use of twitter is to never tweet. The network is so public, so ‘out there’, so resistant to erasure, so difficult to stop, pause or control. Tweets take seconds on the keyboard, but an ill judged one may live with you for years.