Big Brother is Watching You. On Twitter.

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George Orwell: "1984"

Originally uploaded by surfstyle

To be honest, the idea of making your Twitter-stream private always sort of perplexed me. Oh sure, there are some very compelling justifications: bad breakups, office politics, the stalker potential (particularly if you’re an A-list resource), and so on. And so I respect every users’ right to wall their space off.

But for the majority of us, I always thought the costs of keeping everything under lock and key far outweighed the benefits. Now, however, I am being forced to reconsider that view. Because, as John Simonds reports (not to rag on John here, he’s just the messenger), one or more of the professional communities I interact and work with may use the tool to form an impression of me.

It’s not obvious to me that this impression would be anything less than professional. I’m generally not Twittering after a night on the town, every other word is not something that would be considered unprintable, and I’m not posting the intimate details of my day to day existence. But I need to consider it, still, because as I’ve discussed in the past, Twitter is a personal tool for me first, professional tool second. A distant second.

While I will post the occasional work item through Twitter – it’s likely that this very post will be thrown up there, in fact – I typically do not use Twitter for my day to day work. I don’t Twitter conferences, I don’t Twitter briefings, I don’t Twitter my analysis, and so on. For several reasons. One, I personally don’t like to read those sorts of things on Twitter myself (live-Twittering of conferences in particular is not something I’m fond of). Two, I have a professional channel: this blog. I don’t need Twitter for that. Three, my primary goal on Twitter is to entertain, not educate. And most of what I do for a living is anything but entertaining. Last, big portions of the audience I’m generally speaking to on Twitter – which includes my Facebook contact list – could not care less about Twitters of work subjects. They’d much prefer to gather ammunition about my lack of fishing success to use against me later.

In my comment over on John’s blog, I called the usage of Twitter in this fashion unfair, and that was frankly silly. Barbara‘s comment over there is likely correct: the “personal-professional mix that makes Twitter pretty much impossible for AR profs to ignore or treat as an analyst’s personal chat channel.” Fair or unfair doesn’t really enter into this; as the cops tell you, what you say can and will be used against you. It’s the difficulty of addressing a 1:many audience.

While I might prefer that Twitter be something akin to a bar or watercooler conversation, what I’d prefer matters very little. Even if it were considered bar talk, however, those have their risks. If I’m talking to a colleague over a beer, I can assume that it’s private. If I’m talking to a reporter, however, the expectations are entirely different. And via Twitter we can and often are speaking with all of the above at the same time.

This is not unknown to me. I regularly pepper entries here with links to various Twitter comments to illustrate different points of view and opinions, and while I personally would never use an entry that might be potentially embarassing, damaging or the like, it’s not reasonable to expect that same courtesy to be extended universally. Human nature, and all that.

The question, then, is how to proceed.

On the one hand, I’d prefer not to self-censor in spite of the fact that there is probably very little actual need. That would argue for a privatized Twitter stream – one viewable only by the resources I chose to make it available to, which would presumably exclude many of the professionals seeking to use it currently. On the other, the benefits of an open Twitter socially have been extensive, and in spite of my lack of effort it has had positive professional implications. One of our clients – who I certainly do not have to censor myself for – says that Twitter is “like having [us Monks] in the room.” Which has value, clearly.

But at what price? For now, I’m loathe to retreat behind the walls. But as the scrutiny goes up, and unanticipated audiences rush in to try and extract professional meaning from personal meanderings, that may change.

P.S. Because one person’s already pinged me, yes, the 1984 analogy is (mostly) tongue in cheek. Much of your right to privacy is forfeit when you post material publicly; I get that.


  1. Some people deal with this by having two twitter accounts — one public, one private. Of course, that solution has its own warts.

  2. Steve: I’m very much one for being quite open in my personal life [example: WHOIS searchers can easily find my address], but I’ve walled Twitter off for professional reasons. [Mainly, I found myself wanting to use it as a channel to vent when my customers are pissing me off. As if, um, you haven’t ever seen tweets to that effect from me.]

    And yes, outside parties don’t do a good job of the private/public split—at least not to how any of us do things. So yeah, I have a locked-down Twitter account, despite the fact that, yes, I lose all the value-adds of network effects.

  3. I’m with you 100% on this one. Everything I write for my day job involves precise and certain language. When I write on my blog or on Twitter, I use a very informal style because it’s just more comfortable or casual to me than to express thoughts in formal statements. The challenge is where is this line between a public, professional presentation vs your own informal social channel. I find this challenge with Facebook. Some friends use it professionally and others use it to communicate informally. Perhaps I simply need to makeup a alternative identify for my casual self known only to those I trust 😉

  4. I’ve always thought Twitter is what you make it, but I guess that only applies to how you use it. Twitter is what its users want to make it, and as you say, some of them may want to do different things with your information than you intended.

    I was quoted in at least one news story straight from what I tweeted, without ever being contacted about it.

  5. I didn’t mean to be the public sensor in my discussion, but Barbara is correct. Our impression of anyone is the whole of what they put out there.

    It’s not 1984, it just is what it is.

  6. I tend to agree; people will use twitter how they see fit. You might want to use it for personal use but others may differ. I think starting another twitter account for personal use is the way to go; similar to your baseball blog.

  7. just today my colleague said he though we should make our tweets available on our company web site. i was opposed cus frankly i dont think i want MY personal tweets posted on my company’s web site and i dont think they do either. anyway – i sent him your post 😉

  8. Dear friends: The correct spelling of the word is censor with a “c”. Sorry to nitpick, John, but this namesake reader is a retired newspaper editor. Thanks for your interesting and useful Internet communication, which we learn about through GOOGLE Alert. Aloha, John E. Simonds.

  9. The problem here is Twitter has a binary view of privacy – everything public or everything private. LJ has pretty good privacy control, and I’m told Facebook has really fine-grained control, so it’s not much of a stretch for Twitter to have a friends-only option for individual updates.

  10. […] tecosystems – Big Brother is Watching You. On Twitter. […]

  11. Venting, in Private [over the Internet, natch]…

    Every day I think about returning my Twitter account public, I have a day like today where I need to vent somewhere, and I choose to (ab)use my 60-ish Tweeps with my vitriol and self-flagellation. Why? Well, Big Brother might well be watching me on T…

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  13. Twitter is best used as an advertising tool, so making Twitter private does not really make much sense. Why even have an account in the first place then?

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