Racing across the Canadian Twittersphere today is the story of Pat Martin, a Member of Parliament for the opposition New Democratic Party, who had a Howard Beale moment on Twitter last night. I’ll let you read the details of his online outbursts and decide for yourself whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I will say that it’s at least nice to see a public figure tweet something controversial and not immediately delete it afterward.
What’s instructive from this story is the distinction Martin draws between appropriate behaviour in the House of Commons and in the Twittersphere:
Martin said he would never use that kind of language in the Commons — where the NDP has obeyed a self-imposed heckling ban since the spring election — but argued Twitter is different. “We don’t heckle. We don’t use vulgar language. We behave in the (Commons),” said Martin, who is known for his bombastic style of speaking. “What I say to my private universe is an expression of what I am really feeling and I don’t apologize for that. I don’t retract it. [Emphasis added]
That’s a thought-provoking (not to mention musical) turn of phrase. On one hand, of course, you’d have to be delusional to believe that what you say on Twitter or any social network is “private” in any real sense of the word. One of the first rules of social media is that everything you say, do or post online can go viral worldwide in 24 hours if it delights or outrages enough people.
At the same time, however, there’s something to be said for the right to speak in dual capacities, one professional and one personal. This is not a right we widely acknowledge today: a company employee who expresses an unpopular or vulgar opinion is invariably held to have damaged the company’s reputation and to deserve sanctions. But do we lose the right to speak our mind when we start drawing a paycheque? Can we only be one person in public, the professional one? Are we entitled to a “private universe”?
This is already an issue for law firms, and it’s only going to recur more frequently. Witness the case of the law firm associate who tweeted about a note left in her luggage by a TSA agent referring to a certain personal item. I’m guessing that her employer was at least a little embarrassed by this story, and if so, understandably. But it simply highlights how difficult the internet has made the maintenance of meaningful divisions between our private and professional selves.
I see many lawyer Twitter accounts whose biographies use up precious character space to note that “Opinions expressed here are my own.” I even see it occasionally on lawyer blogs, inserted by bloggers worried that something they say might be taken as the official position of their firm. This tells me that we’ve gradually lost the ability to let people speak on their own behalf, and if we dislike what they say, to limit our dislike to that person and not transfer it to the people and organizations with whom they’re associated. We don’t really believe that a public figure — and we’ve defined that term broadly enough to include almost everyone — has the right to a private universe.
So in that environment, how should you conduct yourself as a lawyer using social media? There’s no safe or easy answer. You could use social media only for professional purposes and never reveal your personal side; if you can manage it, that’s definitely your best bet. If you want to have both a personal and a professional self online, you could strive for blandness, writing or posting little or nothing that could reasonably offend a cyber-passerby; that’s not only difficult, but it also kind of defeats the purpose of social media generally. Using Circles on Google Plus, choosing a specific audience for each statement, might be an effective if cumbersome answer; but what’s to stop one of my “personal” contacts from sharing my observation with the world at large? The fact is, whatever I say to one person online might as well be said to everyone.
Despite all that, I still like to think that I’m entitled to a private universe online, a place where “my personal capacity” means exactly that. For example, I keep my blogs and Twitter feed as close to 100% professional as I can, but not everyone abides by that rule. I follow the Twitter feeds of people who issue both professional and personal tweets in the same stream, and some of the personal ones have bothered me enough that I’ve unfollowed those accounts. I do think you should choose a personal channel and a professional channel and keep them separate.
For myself, I use my Facebook account to express my personal observations. Now Facebook, of course, is the farthest thing from a private universe: I’ve been advised that Facebook users who are not my Friends have read (and disapproved of) my postings there, yet my privacy settings are as locked-down as I can make them (which, at Facebook, isn’t very). But you know what, if someone whose attention I didn’t invite reads something intended for an audience that doesn’t include him, then there’s not much I can (or want to) do about that. Beyond self-censorship, what else is there?
So for the time being, anyway, be very cautious. We live in a highly sensitive world that likes to take offence and to impute that offence to as many people and organizations as possible. It’s a given that being obscene and obnoxious is and always will be asking for trouble. But think twice about expressing your personal, political, or religious opinions in social media unless you’re unusually willing to face the consequences, including career-limiting ones.
In future, for better or for worse, I think we’ll end up giving people more latitude than we do now to “be themselves” in public, to maintain a private universe. But today, in the absence of universally acknowledged lines, you have to draw your own lines and take responsibility for where you draw them. Free speech is not free, in the sense that no responsibilities or ramifications attach to it. Speech has a price; learn that price early, and make sure you don’t end up with a bad case of sticker shock.