Twitter: You Do Realize That Others Are Listening? (Update)

While I don’t follow a lot of people on twitter, that doesn’t mean that I don’t stumble across the twits of far more than my  handful of followees.  Often, a twit comes across my screen that strikes me as interesting or curious, and I take a look at its derivation, the conversation that generated such a curious twit.

What’s amazing to me is how easy it is to essentially eavesdrop on a conversation between others, and how the twitterers involved in the conversation have no reticence in twitting their personal discussion out in public.  Do they not realize that other people, some they might “know” (in the sense that anyone knows anyone on twitter) as well as some they don’t know at all are listening in?

If this conversation was happening face to face, in a room filled with a bunch of people who were at best acquaintances and at worst people you wouldn’t talk to unless someone paid you, would you speak loud enough to make sure that everyone in the room could hear you?  Would you reveal your thoughts, or lack thereof, to anyone within earshot?

On occasion, I will ask one of the more knowledgeable people on twitter who someone is.  I do this because their biographies, the handful of words chosen by twitterers to describe themselves to the rest of the world, don’t tell me much.  You’re on a search for self-discovery and I should join you?  Who the heck are you?  Why should I care.  My favorite twitter expert (I know, I laugh to myself every time I put those two words together too), Adrian, explained that we should invite others to follow us on our “quest” on twitter.  Adrian’s bio says:

Follow me as I work to become a change agent for Big Law.

Don’t laugh.  Somebody has to break those hundred dollar bills so they can get their vente latte at Starbucks.  I assume Adrian takes a percentage, but I fail to see any reason to follow someone who makes change.  It’s not that interesting.  Yet there is an awful lot of personal information that comes with the territory,  He travels a lot, though it’s not clear how he can afford to.  He went to a play with his wife the other night, and then met Ed of Blawg Review for breakfast the next morning.  He didn’t say what he ate, but his wife showed up for breakfast too.

But Adrian is pretty careful about spouting something that looks pretty foolish in a stand alone twit.  Maybe he knows what he’s doing, because I can’t say the same about some others. 

This is where I ought to insert an example of a twit that demonstrates the point I’m about to make.  I actually have one in hand, but I’ve decided, at the last moment, not to use it.  It would be embarrassing to the twitterer, and I’m sure the twitterer didn’t realize when writing it that somebody like me would pluck it off twitter to use as an example. 

I expect to be excoriated by my conscience, Mark Bennett, for having failed to source my point and name names.  He’s right, of course, except that I’m similarly excoriated for doing exactly that and being a mean person.  So, in the exercise of discretion and editorial control, I choose to proceed in the absence of proof, and you can accept or reject what I have to say based upon my failure to provide an example.  And trust me, my example was really good.

While I may not know where you are at the moment, or with whom you’ve shared breakfast, I just learned something very important about you from your twit.  I learned that you jump to baseless conclusions.  I learned that you just tried to curry favor with someone who is unsavory or stupid.  I learned that you are indiscriminate, intemperate, intimate. 

Did you really mean to tell me this about you?

You are talking in public.  You have absolutely no clue who is listening.  You likely don’t even know the person you are talking to, even though their twitter name is familiar and you’ve been engaged with the person for a length of time.  On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.  But it’s awfully easy to find out if you’re a mutt.

Some people react well to us, while others give us the cold shoulder.  We try to guess why, using our own limited and usually projected knowledge to explain what happens in other people’s head.   We really don’t have a clue, or even the most basic details to make an educated guess.  One common belief is that they don’t even know us, so how can they decide not to like us. 

Under some situations, the answer is that they do indeed know us.  Not the “us” we seek to project, but the us that appears in the face we present to our pals, but exposed to anyone and everyone.  Like what we twit. 

I spoke with a lawprof the other day, who had twitted favorably about a post at the blog of one of the most notorious marketing liars around.  He was unaware of the history, and hadn’t realized the connection inadvertently made between him and the liar.  He thanked me for giving him the history.  I urged him to think first next time.  The truth is, my perception of this lawprof was that he’s a dolt for what he’d done.  Having spoken with him, and heard the explanation for his error, I learned how the error happened.

What is the likelihood that every person who reads your twit is going to speak to you, come to understand why you wrote what you wrote, and perhaps not conclude that you are someone they want nothing to do with?  For crying out loud, you are twitting in public.  There are people reading your twits and making decisions about you, and you have no idea who they are and what they think.  Rather than “networking” and “engaging,” you are undermining your reputation in the eyes of others.

Put some thought into what you twit and who you twit with.  Be discriminate.  Consider whether that very funny twit will appear funny to unknown others or make you look foolish.  When you twit with that next potential follow and praise their brilliance, consider what that says about what you think is brilliant and who you want to get in bed with.  Think about what you are telling people you don’t know, and who don’t know you, about yourself. 

Twitter is public.  What would you say aloud to a room full of people you don’t know? 

Update:  Some reactions:

What’s the big deal?  It isn’t that serious?  Who cares about twitter?  Nothing you see on twitter matters?

Nothing is ever a problem, or serious, or important, until it’s a problem,serious and important.  It’s been almost two years since Dan Solove published his prescient book, The Future of Reputation, and still people don’t get it. 

It’s true that we can’t establish a person’s positive bona fides because he says so about himself on the internet, but we can surely establish a person’s negatives by dumb, inappropriate and foolhardy nonsense a person posts online.  The two are not the same.

And as for claiming that you “don’t care” about your online reputation, you’re either a liar or a moron.  Nobody trashes their reputation online for nothing.  Again, this isn’t the same as “online reputation development,” the creation of a positive online reputation.  Think Herzbergs hygiene and motivator factors if you can’t distinguish between positive and negative impacts.  The point is that we can unintentionally trash ourselves to people we don’t know who, for whatever reason, will dismiss us because of it.  No reasonable, rational person wants this.

And finally, once someone has trashed their reputation with stupidity, don’t expect that people will look again, just to give you the benefit of a second chance. 

The reactions to this post are shockingly silly and naive, reflecting a failure to heed Solove’s warning.  In fact, the reactions are very much of the sort that makes someone else believe that you lack a depth of understanding and intelligence to make you the sort of lawyer one would want to represent them or refer cases to.  You may not be out there to develop business, but are you really out there to make others think you’re a dope?

Thinking and using good judgment shouldn’t be controversial.  That anyone would think it is may be the most damning commentary about you there can be.  Think about it.  Oops, you don’t do that, do you?

31 comments on “Twitter: You Do Realize That Others Are Listening? (Update)

  1. Marilou

    I’ve seen some examples of things I wouldn’t have said also. Members of the Bar and other organizations of respect and influence are building professional reputations as well as personal reputations. I’m a secretary, and nobody is going to pay me more or less based on what I tweet, but your advice should be required reading for everybody whose income and professional standing depend, or one day may depend, on the image they portray. I’m pretty open on Twitter and the other social networking sites where I lurk, but there is or should be a similar set of standards for laygirls as well as professionals. If I use bad grammar and bad language, who’s going to ask me for the name of a good place to eat when they visit Virginia Beach next month? And who’s going to take me seriously when I write about something that I consider important? Twitter can be a good place to meet people (that’s how I found your blog the first time), and we generally think we are nice, whatever that really means, and we want to meet equally nice people. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. mirriam

    Well, someone told me the other day not to put any stock in what people give us on the internet. So, which is it? Is what they put on twitter who they really are? This whole thing is just too confusing for me.

  3. Windypundit

    It would have been amusing to see the offending tweet, but there’s no skill in verbally skewering the helpless. Next thing you know, you’d be trolling MySpace high school blogs for uninformed opinions and signs of overestimated self importance. You earn more curmudgeon points by lambasting those who should really know better.

  4. Jamison

    Twitter for me is a fun diversion. And while I care about my professional reputation, including my on-line reputation, it doesn’t really matter to me if some stranger eavesdropping on something I say thinks worse of me because of it. Friends who know me will understand the context. As for potential lost business opportunities, heck, it is pretty preposterous to think that anyone would ever hire a lawyer or refer a potential client on the basis of Twitter anyway. The question for me then isn’t whether or not anyone else is listening in. It is whether or not you care.

    I also have a hard time getting too upset about the “forever in cyberspace” thing. Sure, it’s a concern if it is on page one of Google. But if someone goes to all the trouble of dredging up something I’ve written long ago on Twitter, it seems to me that some stupid thing I may once have said would probably be the least of my worries.

  5. Amy Derby

    You could just post a link to everything I say on twitter and call it a day. No?

    I’m here to serve as an example of what not to do. You’re welcome.

  6. SHG

    If the message you got the other day was not to put any stock in what others give us on the internet, then you didn’t get the right message.  That said, it’s far easier to dismiss someone based on some of the incredibly dopey things people toss around.  The point remains that this is a public forum, with all the ramfications.  Using good judgment shouldn’t be confusing.

  7. Mark Bennett

    So I get leaving out the twitterer’s identity, you being such a big subscriber to the Happysphere movement and all. But without some clue as to the content of the offending Twit, this post is nigh useless; it makes a point only to those who already appreciate the point. In short, sir, I will not bookmark it for future use.

  8. SHG

    I suspect you may be right (drat, I hate that), but really didn’t want to either hurt the twitterer who generated it (it was stupid, but not harmful otherwise) or divert attention from the point to the person.  That hasn’t gone well to make larger points lately, you know.  And, of course, the point extends far beyond any individual twit, or facebook statement, or blog comment or post, so I didn’t want the focus limited to a particular twit rather than the broader concept.

  9. Lee

    Yeah, there is the counterpoint to be made here that everyone is batting around (Marilou especially pointing out that most people on Twitter aren’t there trying to develop their professional reputation) of who gives a shit what those people think?

    I mean, really, who gives a shit and why should they?

    Stop giving this stuff more importance than it deserves. Twitter deserves exactly none. In contrast to internet reputations in general which deserve _almost_ none.

  10. SHG

    Whether “most” or not, very few are on twitter trying to damage their reputation.  And don’t be naive. Some who profess not to care are absolutely desperate to “develop” their online reputation.  It just wouldn’t do well to admit it.

    In any event, it’s much like Facebook, where teeny-boppers write dumb stuff that comes back later to bite then in the butt.  Nothing really matters, nothing is ever serious, until it matters and is serious.  By then, it’s too late and the damage is done.  Think first.  Use good judgment.  If this seem too burdensome or controversial, there are other problems afoot. 

    If you think the internet will have no impact on reputation, positive and negative, then you haven’t paid attention.  You may think you’re above such worthless matters, but there are plenty of others (and I know you do as well, even though you claim otherwise) who judge based on it.  It’s naive and irresponsible to suggest that peope act foolishly because you don’t think it “deserves” importance.  It’s here to stay, so don’t screw it up.

  11. Lee

    Scott, as you know, I know all this. My post was not denying the problem, I’m just trying to place the problem in perspective. When you do that, this in not the biggest problem in the legal community, but a lot of time and thought gets wasted when all that’s needed is the slightest bit of thought and judgment.

    I’m also of the belief that, both online and off, people and lawyers in particular spend too much time worrying about what other people think about them and how they will be perceived.

    I am not counseling people to act foolishly, but I think if you have to tell people NOT to act foolishly, you might be fighting an uphill battle already.

  12. SHG

    What constitutes “foolishness” has and is changing.  I see what people write and twit, and I’m both amazed and disgusted.  As if every errant thought must somehow be broadcast publicly.  This is a brave new world, Lee.  Some, maybe most, will ignore what I advise.  I can’t help that, but it still needs to be said.

  13. Adrian Dayton

    I am extremely relieved I don’t have a recent tweet worthy of your attention.

    It seems to me like you are proposing that we be careful about what we say online. We need to be careful because our online reputation is important, right? Hmmm.

    This is change from what you were writing about 12 months ago. I think the change is interesting… very interesting.

  14. SHG

    Adrian, why do you always make me regret using words with more than one syllable.  Read again (and check the Herzberg link; it’s from that day you missed in undergrad sociology). Digest. If you can’t figure it out, let me know and I’ll try to explain it to you in marketing jargon. 

  15. BRIAN TANNEBAUM

    Let me see if I can help – yeah, it’s me Adrian. What Scott is saying, partially, is that we should be aware that what we say online is out there for the world to see. What he’s also saying, that you’ve conveniently ignored, is that people can say anything on the internet – like that they’re an experienced corporate lawyer, when they were laid off after a few months and no longer practice law. Or that they participated in a 450 million dollar merger, when all they did was document review.

    He’s also saying that we should understand that when someone says they are a “Change Agent for BigLaw,” this is a self-imposed title that means nothing. It is what people say who spend their days on twitter trying to become relevant to firms that wouldn’t let them clean the floors at 3 a.m.

    Got it?

  16. Adrian Dayton

    Biglaw wouldn’t let you clean their floors Brian?

    That’s a shame, I have been working with them continuously for almost a year now.

    You would have realized that if you ever did any actual research before throwing around baseless accusations.

    The legal world is changing, I don’t take credit for any of it- but I certainly aspire to make a difference. I’m sorry if that is offensive to your sensibilities.

  17. BRIAN TANNEBAUM

    Adrian,

    Based on your extensive lies on your bio, some, not all, of which you subsequently “modified” when I mentioned them, I have no reason to believe a word you say about anything, so watch the “baseless accusations” language – those are big words, even coming from an “experienced corporate lawyer,” like yourself

    But you know what, I’m happy to be wrong, so just let me, and everyone else know how many BigLaw firms have hired you, paid you money, to do anything for them in “almost” the last year, and tell us a little bit about what you did.

    I trust they’ll be some deflective response from you.

  18. Adrian Dayton

    Great questions Brian, the work I have done with Biglaw involves social media training, individual coaching and help in the strategy and creation of law blogs.

    The first group I started with back in December I have now been working with for almost 10 months continuously. They have now expanded the program beyond the original group because the results have been so positive.

    Over the last six month two other large firms have started similar programs with me, and one of the two has already extended beyond the originally contracted period.

    While in Australia I also provided training that was attended by large firms including Baker & McKenzie, Mallesons, Henry Davis York and Corrs among others.

  19. BRIAN TANNEBAUM

    So you claim to have 3 BigLaw clients in America and you gave a seminar in Australia. I give it 18 months before you move on and find yourself actually trying to use that law degree of yours for something other than teaching twitter to lawyers.

  20. Adrian Dayton

    Brian, you and Scott appear to sincerely love the practice of law. You have a passion for it, and I respect that.

    In my brief time practicing law, I realized I didn’t share your passion. 18 months, ago after losing my job, I never would have predicted being where I am now. So, who knows what the future holds?

    The internet and social media have provided me with some pretty amazing opportunities though, I guess I am just thankful to have landed on my feet.

  21. BRIAN TANNEBAUM

    As I say in these types of cross examinations, I think I’ve made my point. You’re right, you’re lucky you’ve as you say “landed on your feet.” Thankfully for you, none of your claimed “clients” care that while you sell yourself as someone that can help lawyers get clients through twitter and other social media, you’ve never as a lawyer had one yourself.

    Again, thankfully for you, no one asks, or cares.

  22. Jamison

    Brian:

    No one asks? No one cares?

    My wife was a partner at BigLaw for many years, and some of our best friends are still senior partners at some of the biggest law firms here in D.C. I’m thinking that these former White House counsel, Members of Congress, and senior members of the Administration can figure out for themselves that a first or second-year associate who claims to have worked on a multi-million dollar deal didn’t play a major role in that deal. While I’m sure they are extremely grateful for your assistance, it’s doubtful they really need to have it pointed out to them.

    You should leave Adrian Dayton alone. He is offering a service while doing what he likes to do. Let the market decide whether the service is needed.

  23. SHG

    We need to seriously upgrade the contents of your iPod.  No, really.

    And I already have a theme song: Send lawyers, guns and money; the shit has hit the fan…

  24. consumer

    I absolutely feel that indiscreet twits are displaying merely a tiny shadow online of the indiscreet gossip they engage in in real life. I believe they are deluded into believing they do their clients no harm, from either. Clients of course, are worthless inconveniences to them in the first place, and it shows. I would never hire such a lawyer and would gladly fire one in as dramatic and stunning way as possible. They deserve to be exposed and publicly humiliated. They are abusing their clients.

    The fact that you protect the identify of the clown you are referring to in your posts does nothing to inspire faith in the legal profession overall. As a consumer, I am not interested in protecting his privacy for his online messes.

  25. Consumer

    And by the way, I wouldn’t hire a single lawyer who posted in this comment section on this website. You come off like idiots.

    And I don’t think it is “classy” to leave the offenders name out. It is taking care of your own, splitting hairs over fake manners that don’t serve any higher goal than avoiding your own boujee sensibilities.

    your “big law” argument is an embarassment, your jokes aren’t funny, your cleverness isn’t clever and your values are sophmoric and parochial.

    Why would anyone trust you with their money, their lives, their futures, and most importantly, preserving their good names?

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