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Think Before You Tweet (or Blog or Update a Status)

Earlier this week, Miriam Posner, Stewart Varner, and Brian Croxall wrote “Creating Your Web Presence: A Primer for Academics.”  They had some terrific recommendations about how to establish an online presence and how to keep that presence active and positive.  Good stuff!

Here at ProfHacker, we’ve written before about the networking wonders and creative collaborations that can happen via online forums.  We meet people from different disciplines in various parts of the world, and we connect because we share interests and goals.  With all the good, though, there are some negative aspects to online presences.  It’s important to recognize that whatever we write online is for public consumption, that we are not simply chatting with friends and family when we post.

Today I want to veer off their post just a bit and write about something that might detract from a positive and professional online presence, a presence that we so meticulously create and maintain, comments made online that publicly disparage students and colleagues.  These comments can be intentional—meant to demean or criticize—or they can be random comments made in jest.

Take, for example, the case of Dr. Gloria Gadsden, an associate professor at East Stroudsburg University.  About a year ago, Dr. Gadsden wrote on Facebook that she had a good day at school, and “didn’t want to kill even one student,” adding “Friday was a different story.”  She wrote this comment—surely in jest—in a space that she believed to be private.  However, it wasn’t.  A third party read her comment and notified university authorities.  Dr. Gadsden was suspended, and ultimately reinstated, after the incident, but the hit to her professional reputation is clear.

A few more cautionary tales:

  • In the U.K., thirteen Virgin Atlantic Airlines crewmembers were fired after they made fun of passengers and jokes about airline safety on Facebook.
  • In June of 2010, a Pittsburgh Pirates’ mascot was fired after posting a negative comment about the contract extension of two team managers.  Andrew Kurtz, 24, was fired within hours of posting the comment, “Coonelly extended the contracts of Russell and Huntington through the 2011 season. That means a 19-straight losing streak. Way to go Pirates,” to his Facebook page.
  • At a Dallas radio station, The Ticket, producer Mike Bacsik was suspended after making some unfortunate Twitter comments after a night drinking with friends.  The station noted that Bacsik “had been ‘a good employee’ . . . and [his] final public communication while a Ticket employee reflected poorly on the station.”
  • Lastly, do you know what it means to be “dooced”?  If you’ve been blogging for any length of time, you’ve heard the word.  It’s now slang for “fired.”  Heather Armstrong, of the blog Dooce.com, was fired from a job she held after she wrote satiric accounts about her bosses and colleagues on her blog.

The kind of vocalizations that caused the above-named individuals to be fired are common in high stress professions, as they can defuse anger or frustration.  Speaking these words can be a way to commiserate with colleagues, or they can become “in jokes” among friends.  These exchanges can be OK when we are face-to-face with others, as we have body language and voice inflections to help us understand the meaning and context behind the statements.  Online is a different situation, however.

If we blog or use Twitter or Facebook under our given names, the words we write are attributed to us, and they can be easily misunderstood.  If we blog or tweet under a pseudonym, the work isn’t directly linked to us as individuals, but it can be linked to our friends and followers.

Recently on Twitter, among those I follow who work in higher education, I’ve seen a significant rise in snarky comments about students and their work.  These comments are usually made anonymously.  The comments bothered me, but initially I thought a Twitter user who was experiencing some on-the-job frustration was making the comments.  However, the comments increased.  The people who were making the comments increased.  Suddenly my Twitter stream was a teacher’s lounge.  (Most educators know to stay out of the teacher’s lounge.)

Because I follow and am followed by several hundred people—most of them in higher education—I’m aware of what I write online.  I write nothing that I wouldn’t say aloud to anyone.  I am also very aware that my students follow me on Twitter, as I use Twitter as a pedagogical tool.  I don’t say or tweet or write anything that I wouldn’t say to them.  Conversely, these students often follow who I follow on Twitter, and I don’t want them to see other professors publicly laughing at student effort or intelligences.  I don’t make malicious comments about students or colleagues, but since I follow or am followed by those that do, I wondered if their attempts at humor affected the way others saw me.  I unfollowed/defriended those individuals.

The point to this is this:  if we have an online presence, we must be responsible in what we say or write.  This seems simple, doesn’t it?  Nevertheless, we forget that we are not in the company of friends when we say or write the things we do.  Almost anyone can read our words, and they might misunderstand our intent.

How about you?  How do you feel about online conversations among professionals? How do you (or do you) limit your involvement in online conversations?  What advice might you offer to someone new to the online world?  Please leave your comments or suggestions below.

[Image by Flickr user boetter and used under the Creative Commons license.]

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