Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Dangers of Twitter

We all know the benefits of Twitter, I think. It's an informal "chatroom" where you can connect with people who have the same interests as yourself. It can provide a resource for research purposes - Lauren Beukes thanked a few people on Twitter in her novel Zoo City for information they had given via Twitter. It enables you to follow editors, publicists, authors etc and find out information such as when novels are coming out, what signings your favourite author will be doing.

But there is such a darker element to Twitter, and, having been bitten by this a few times so far, I thought I'd point out some of the ways that Twitter can be dangerous.

The reason why this post struck me came from a Twitter message put out today by someone I follow. They have been vomiting since this morning, unable to keep anything down - and they asked Twitter for help. This astounded me a little, to be honest. With resources such as NHS Direct and, if it gets worse, the local NHS walk-in centre, why would anyone ask people who are not medically trained for advice? *incredulous* At best, they don't manage to solve the issue. At worse, they could end up far worse for taking advice offered.

That is a rather extreme case, to be honest. But here are some other warnings for Twitter usage.

Unless you lock your account, anyone can follow you without your explicit approval. That means your boss or co-workers could be following every single thing you say. They can see your bitching about them. They can see how often you post on Twitter during the day when you should be working (God knows, I am guilty of that one and, no matter how much you say to yourself that you are keeping it to reasonable amounts, you are still doing something that your company would probably not appreciate). It has led to people being fired from their jobs, so definitely something to bear in mind.

The act of unfollowing a person can be deemed to be 'political' or a statement that you don't like that person anymore. You might be thinking that they won't notice because they're followed by hundreds of people; they're getting themselves worked up wondering what they did or said to cause you to unfollow. One piece of advice I would offer here: if you are the unfollowed party, please find out privately why that might have happened, or just shrug your shoulders and accept it. The worst possible thing to do is to @ them publically and ask - it potentially causes a really awkward and uncomfortable position for both parties, and looks a little desperate to those looking on.

For authors working via Twitter, they could be less than professional and bitch to someone else about either their agent or their editor. Even if that person isn't following them, a quick search via Google could bring up what they have said. Sure, it might have had different context in the conversation occurring, but it will remain forever for that person to find at a later date when all context has been stripped.

Just as drunken texting can cause issues, drunken tweeting can do the same. We've all been there - home from the pub at an unreasonable hour, feeling happy and giggly, and straight onto the Net. Drunken tweeting can be amusing to others, but it can lead to public statements that you would never have typed out and posted normally. Best not to put yourself in that situation!

Again, concerning the "private" conversations between friends who seem to believe no one else is reading their tweets to one another, these tweets can be used and immortalised in blog posts. I myself used some tweets to make a point in a blog post, and then encountered a very indignant person on Twitter who was mystified that this had been done. I did feel a little uncomfortable afterwards for having taken the tweets, but then there is a private message function on Twitter, plus private email, plus private phonecalls to conduct any conversations that you might feel bad about other people seeing in the future. And, remember, any of your words can be pointed out to others. I had this happen myself. I tweeted something about someone, and that someone was then informed about it. Just something to bear in mind: if it's on Twitter, it's not private anymore.

Twitter journalism is another dark side of the phenomenon, as far as I am concerned. This year there have been at least three occasions where the news about an event hit Twitter before it reached official news channels, such as the tsunami in Japan and the death of Lis Sladen. On the one hand, this is a positive about Twitter - I have NEVER been so aware of world events as since I started using Twitter; however, what of misinformation? Some celebrities have had to issue direct statements saying they haven't actually died to ensure that the news doesn't spread too far. The dark side to Twitter journalism is that *nothing* is being verified before it is issued - this instant form of communication can, on occasion, be *too* instant.

I still love using Twitter, even though I've fallen foul of some of the problems in using it. Any form of communication that allows me to find and then share joys such as the below can never be 100% terrible *winks*

Thomas Paul Bedding Line - it's a KRAKEN!

So there you have it - some of the dangers, in my opinion, of using Twitter. What other dangers have you encountered? What would you advise new users of Twitter to avoid? Conversely, what do you most love about Twitter?


  1. Well, it's the same as elsewhere on the web. Nothing you say outside the walls of your home is really private. Same rules of caution apply.

    I never talk about work, health (unless it's minor), family, or my private life anywhere online. Better safe than sorry.
    And I never post while at work, Except on days like today where I am just sitting at the desk all day counting visitors :)

    I guess it's important to educate young people about this. It should be part of teachings at school, in some places they actually do.

    Some people made fun of me when I posted some entries about Facebook and it's dangers, I think a lot of people don't realise these dangers. No need to become paranoid, but some caution is good.

  2. I agree that Twitter has its darker side, but it is also a great promotional tool and the best thing is that it lets you engage with far more people and businesses than you would ever manage from plain "networking" business lunches etc. It also satisfies my inherent nosiness in a way that I would never have imagined possible when I was journalist 25 years ago - brilliant!

  3. My thought on the medical advice thing: I regard it very much like asking a friend, and I think most people do, too. I'm almost never ill, and often NHS Direct is not that informative - I have no idea what cnstitutes a reason to visit the doctor or the ER. If I'm with friends, I'd consult them. On Twitter, I'm always with friends, so I consult them. That doesn't mean I regard their advice as equal to NHS Online or a doctor.

    The Internet is full of misinformation. When I had a fly trapped in my ear (a thing NHS Online says nothing about, and, indeed, the nurses I eventually talked ot in person had never encuntered before) googling gave me a lot of advice that suggested I needed to go to the ER. This was Flat Out False. Talking to people about it on Twitter amused them and kept me calm and sensible. I don't think it's that unreasonable to ask people on Twitter for help, and it doesn't mean that the person asking is *only* looking to Twitter for advice, or regarding it as infallible.

    As regards news on Twitter - yeah, sometimes it's wrong, but usually I don't retweet anything unless it's directly from an official source or I've checked it out myself. And if ever you should get somethign wrong people are very quick to come down on you to tell you how much cleverer they are than you, so as a rule I've found it a much better course of news than anything else. Not least because I get my news from the people I follow because they're reliable. Some of the people I follow I do in part because they're excellent newshounds, but because I also know them from their other tweets I also have a better sense of what their biases may be. PennyRed is great, but she makes no secret of her political stance and agenda.

    The rest is... well, the same as anything else on the Internet. Coming on Twitter was a brave venture in the open for me. My full real name is not directly mentioned on my account, and I would never tweet anything negative about work there at all. To be honest, I very rarely even hint about anything at all connected with work, and I know better than to ever name the company. Twitter is no different to Facebook or Livejournal or anything else in that regard.

    Twitter? Dangerous? Only as dangerous as everything else out there. Sure you should be careful, but that's the Internet and taht's life.

  4. I male it a point to not tweet about work other than saying I'm off to work or when I have had something really special happen (like getting a permanent contract or having had a good day), but I do tweet at work. Another thing I do is self-censure a LOT. If I'm unsure whether something is approriate, I won't tweet. One rule of thumb here is if I wouldn't say it at work, I won't say it online. As far as sharing personal stuff, I'll share the positive stuff, such as Emma's first steps or being pregnant. Fighting with my hubby... not so much. That stuff is private and if I need to talk to someone there's email or the phone.

    There's absolutely a dark side to online life, but I think that it's just a case of using your common sense and thinking before you post.

  5. All these social networks definitely have their risks. I only ever post things I'm happy to say and be seen to say in public.

  6. I'm not too worried about Twitter journalism - even professional journalists put out stories that are misleading or plain wrong (viz the recent "IE users are stupid" hoax), and like you I've become far more aware of important, genuinely newsworthy events since I started using Twitter regularly (I haven't read a newspaper in years).

    Fortunately I seem able to remain fairly discreet even when tipsy, but then I've been online for years and seen too many other people make idiots of themselves to fall into that trap. I hope! I agree, though, that people do tend to forget that it's public (direct messages are limited to pairs of participants unless you use a third-party service like TweetGuru).

    I do try to be cautious about using Twitter at work, but our internet usage policy is not too draconian, thankfully. As for locking my account, as a debut author I simply can't afford to turn potential fans away. I know I don't bother to follow anyone with a locked account, and one of the many reasons I dislike FaceBook is that I have to set up a separate "fan" page unless I want to follow everyone who shows a passing interest in me and give them access to all the personal stuff I share with real friends.

    In fact, I think the its the uncomplicatedness of Twitter's privacy (everything not in a DM is basically public) that throws off people who are used to Facebook with its endlessly configurable privacy settings. Google+ is trying to address this with its Circles, but when it comes down to it, if you want a bitchfest or just a private natter, it's best to take it off social media altogether.

  7. I only just started my twitter a couple of weeks ago, in the hopes of building more of a platform if I ever become a published author. I'm trying to be very careful with how I use it, so thanks for this blog post!

  8. I completely agree that it's a double edged sword. An example of the power of Twitter can be seen in the recent Tottenham riots, where (apparently) social media (i.e. Twitter) caused rumours to spread before any official reports could be made, which escalated the situation to the point of violence.

    I only ever use Twitter as part of my blog, and rarely post personal stuff on there. Facebook is where I get my gripes out (and don't have any employers on there) so I can remain professional on Twitter.

  9. Great post,Magemanda! The internet iself is a tool best used widely and always with the understanding that nothing is private and everything is not necessarily true or right. If you fully realise that then the internet and social networking is a great marketing tool that we writers need to make the most of.

  10. I think one large problem with twitter is that each tweet is so capable of being taken completely out of context and misunderstood. Each tweet is (obviously) less than 140 characters, and delivered without much in the way of body language (emoticons being a poor substitute). Often times when read as part of a larger stream, and read by those the tweet is intended for, any subtextual meaning is clear.

    But when separated out, or when read not as part of a twitter stream, there is the potential for huge misunderstandings. Even when read in context, the truncated nature of tweets means they can be taken to mean things that were clearly not intended. I have had people read tweets I posted and get offended, even when I wasn't directing comments at them, or didn't think the comment was anything other than innocuous. In short, twitter seems to be a medium that is inherently susceptible to misunderstanding, which is obviously a problem.

    Aaron (Dreaming About Other Worlds).