Published on January 27, 2015

What hat do you wear on Twitter?

By Josephine Suherman-Bailey

Josephine is a Policy Analyst at Involve. She supports Involve's work on the UK Open Government Partnership civil society network and Sciencewise. She is especially interested in opening up decision-making to those who might otherwise struggle to be heard by policy-makers.

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What hat do you wear on Twitter? Do you have a professional account where you broadcast your organisation’s latest reports and tweet pictures from conferences, or do you have a personal account, where you opine on The Apprentice, vent about First Great Western and share pictures of your dog? If you work in the third sector, the answer is probably a bit of both.

The rise of social media, and Twitter in particular, has led to a collapse of identities. Whether or not you accept or intend it, social media blurs the lines between your personal and professional identities, and it’s something we’re all having to get to grips with.

Twitter has given individuals enormous and unprecedented power over their personal profile and brand. Before these kind of platforms, individuals relied on smaller networks, their bosses, or traditional media to raise their profile. It was only the most senior in an organisation who had any kind of profile. But social media has opened this power up to individuals to expose themselves to a much bigger network and shape how this network perceives them. Individuals no longer need to go through institutional gatekeepers.

With this power and opportunity comes risks. The ease and speed with which you can self-publish means that often people do not weigh their words as carefully as they would if they were writing an article. Small misjudgements and slip-ups can be amplified and potentially broadcast to a massive audience. Tweets can be taken out of context, misconstrued or misrepresented, and spun into narratives never dreamed of by the tweet’s author.

If you work for a charity or think tank, odds are you have some political opinions. That’s natural and not unexpected. But your organisation might also have a policy on political neutrality or non-alignment to political parties, and this is the tricky bit for social media. For example, Involve works collaboratively with government and a range of stakeholders, and it’s imperative that we’re trusted to convene neutral spaces for people holding opposing viewpoints.

Our old social media policy could be summarised as “think before you tweet”, but staff had been asking for a bit more guidance on the grey areas: can we criticise government policy we disagree with? Can we express public support for a political party? It was decided that we needed a social media policy that sets out more detailed guidance.

We started by trying to hammer out some concrete do’s and don’ts. We debated the merits of disclaimers in bios, whether a retweet is an endorsement, what controversial means and the line between non-partisan and non-political. As experts in public dialogue, we all place a high value on conversation, debate and bringing diverse outlooks to the table. But what if this is interpreted as bias or party politics? It all got a bit complicated.

In the end, the we realised that trying to create hard and fast rules for the use of something as context-specific as Twitter is a fool’s errand. We decided to revert back to the policy “think before you tweet”, but with an important change of emphasis: we want to support staff to make informed decisions about what they want from their Twitter account.

The foundation of the policy is trust in staff. Involve’s aim is that staff feel supported to make decisions about how they tweet, that they know how Twitter works and they have an idea of what they want to get out of using it. Rather than providing a one-size-fits-all list of rules – which we could passively follow to the letter but still somehow end up in hot water – Involve wants staff to actively engage with and understand all the benefits, the risks and the implications.

So Involve won’t be waving a rulebook at anyone or policing staff tweets. We’ve created a space in which people can discuss the dilemmas they face online, and of course given guidance on the very basics (don’t be racist, sexist, homophobic etc) – but other than that, we’re trusting staff to make the right decisions for them and for Involve.

 

Picture credit: Sean MacEntee

 

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