Free speech is a fine thing. Unfettered self-expression is a precious gift. Some might say that in a democracy such as ours, it should have no limits whatsoever.
But in this era where we all carry portable publishing devices in our pockets, it should definitely have limits, and even if your employer doesn’t impose them on you the way the ABC does on people like me, it makes good sense to impose similar rules on yourself.
So, with that in mind, here’s some advice about how not to screw up on Twitter, the premier platform for laying social media landmines that explode beneath you at the most inopportune moments.
Now that I’ve published this advice, it’s 100 per cent likely that I’ll get into trouble on Twitter in the next 24 to 48 hours, because we live in a deeply ironic universe. But I’m prepared to risk that inevitability, just so that others may learn. Think of that before you post your own scathing tweet about whatever I’m about to say…
Choose your username carefully
The golden rule here is – don’t include your job, or anything else that’s subject to change. After Kevin Rudd was deposed as Prime Minister, he remained @kevinruddpm on Twitter for more than a week, which seemed extremely poignant, and also ill-advised. And yet his ex-pal Wayne Swan didn’t learn from that, and registered @SwannyDPM shortly afterwards. Now he’s @SwannyQLD, which isn’t likely to change.
Not only is it humiliating to have to change your name when you lose your job involuntarily, but the earlier you can grab a good username, the better. The ABC’s managing director was able to take over a disused@mscott account a few years back when he switched from @abcmarkscott, but not all of us have those kinds of contacts in Twitter HQ.
Tweet for the job you want, not the job you have
That advice is often given in terms of how you dress, but for how you tweet it’s even more important. Last year, a relatively unknown comedian called Trevor Noah was given the enormous challenge of taking over The Daily Show after Jon Stewart’s departure. Shortly after he was announced, a wonderful moment for him was overwhelmed by the discovery that he had tweeted some extremely off-colour jokes a few years earlier.
They’re indefensible jokes, but most comedians push the envelope when they’re trying to get noticed. Nowadays, they should probably stay in the comedy cellars. He got through it, but I’m sure it’s still one of the first things that comes to mind when some non-regular viewers hear his name. Perhaps if he’d imagined how well things might go for him career-wise, he’d have been more careful…
To clarify – tweet for the job you want, always remembering that the universe is unpredictable.
In today’s news, there are a couple of examples of the same kind of thing. The incoming Senator for Victoria, James Paterson, was scathing about the prospect of Malcolm Turnbull returning as leader, calling him “ineffective” in 2012. Perhaps he thought then that there was no way a comeback would happen, or that he himself would be offered a Senate spot so soon – but sometimes unlikely scenarios come to pass, especially in politics, and especially recently. If we learn nothing from the rise of potential-president Donald Drumpf and former-holder-of-the-balance-of-power Clive Palmer, we should learn this.
Similarly implausible, or so he may have thought, was the idea of the Greens and Liberals ever working together – and yet Jim Casey, who is trying to unseat Anthony Albanese in Grayndler, has been criticised for a series of tweets using strong language to refer to “Tory” parties – those very same people whose preferences he may find himself seeking before the election.
Don’t try to use a hashtag for marketing
I call this the #qantasluxury effect. Some social media ‘guru’ at the airline created a competition back in 2011 – to enter, you had to post something using the hashtag #qantasluxury. Cue lots of jokes about terrible food and scheduling problems that quickly overwhelmed any legitimate entries.
And yet social marketers keep trying to do this. Just search for “hashtag backfires” like I did and you’ll see there are stacks of examples. #AskTrump, #myNYPD, #NameAHorseRace, even #RespectMyPMin Malaysia. Closer to home, #YourTaxis created the opposite effect to the Victorian Taxi Association’s hopes of rallying fans to counter Uber.
So it shouldn’t have been all that difficult to predict that many, if not most, of the tweets under the Federal Government’s own #ideasboom hashtag would be sarcastic in nature. Never forget that social media is a seething viper’s nest of smartarses. (That’s why we love it.)
There’s too much risk in seeding self-serving hashtags, but if you cater to Twitter users’ love of bizarre, timewasting inanity, things can still go viral in moments. That’s what a few Australian comedians discovered when mucking around the other day with a deliberately stupid topic called#celebrityhousehats – before long, @Mashable had tweeted about it to their seven million followers.
Imagine your boss reading every tweet
Getting this wrong is one of the fastest ways to lose your job – here’s a list of no fewer than 16 people who did, with former Age columnist Catherine Deveny being a well-known example. So is when you tweet a personal comment from a work account – I’m so terrified of doing that that I use a whole different app for work. Which leads me to…
Don’t drink and tweet
Same goes for other substances too, of course. To see why, simply refer to any of the dozens of times@KanyeWest has found himself with a few hours to spare and unleashed a highly entertaining stream of consciousness. Recently, he hit Mark Zuckerberg for a billion dollars for “Kanye West ideas” and admitted to being deeply in debt. Kanye’s tweets are like he’s interrupting Taylor Swift’s speech right on your smartphone screen.
Note – I’m not suggesting that Kanye was in any way intoxicated when he did this. As he’ll tell you, he’s pretty special. I just think that certain substances have been shown to, shall we say, bring out the Kanye in all of us. Take for instance the Australian cricket team.
Understand direct messages
Famous people send each other direct messages. They send them to fans, too. (At least so I’ve read – obviously I’m not famous enough ever to have been involved in anything like this.) But the problem is, in most Twitter apps, one tab is for totally private messages, while just next to it is the tab for the ones that are 100 per cent public. The risk should be obvious, right?
I’m going to try and be charitable by pointing out that we are all fallible when it comes to technology, but let’s just say that former New York congressman Anthony Weiner is more fallible than most. When trying to mount a comeback from Scandal #1, some might have ensured that aides did all the tweeting on their behalf. But, well, let’s just say that Weiner – or should I say Carlos Danger – is an enthusiastic, but not proficient, adopter of new technology.
You can’t assume you’ll remain anonymous
Refer to @RealMarkLatham.
Finally, when things go wrong, remember… deleting won’t save you
The internet is like the North in Game of Thrones – it remembers. (And can be utterly brutal.) It’s worth being aware of places like the Sunlight Foundation, an archive of US politicians’ deleted tweets. If you stuff up, deleting isn’t necessarily a bad idea – but you still need to apologise, because someone will have screencapped it. Like life, Twitter doesn’t come with an undo button.
So, why would anyone use Twitter at all? It can make careers, too. It and Facebook have enabled Donald Drumpf to become the Republican frontrunner without spending much money (here’s an interesting analysis from a marketing perspective). And comedians like Rob Delaney have built careers on consistently excellent (and edgy, as a word of warning) Twitter accounts.
Social media is a potent maker and destroyer of careers – so go out and do your worst, remembering that if you ever get anywhere, you’ll definitely have to front a press conference and apologise for it.
This article was first published at The Drum