Locked Twitter accounts – what’s the problem?

The need for locked accounts – do they say more about our society than they do about the individual? (Image c/o Thomas Quine on Flickr.)

The growth of social media has presented us with opportunities to connect with people in new and varied ways. Through its use, we can build networks with like-minded individuals and use this network to our advantage both personally and professionally.  However, whilst this ability to build such a network is largely positive, for some this creates serious difficulties.

One of the things I have been struck by when reading the huge volume of “just signed up for Twitter, here’s what you do next” type blog posts (and are there plenty of those floating around) is the extent to which they encourage openness and the importance of engaging with the medium in a very public way. Indeed, it is not unusual to encounter the belief that unless you are fully open, you are not really getting the best out of the medium. This does, of course, present difficulties for those who may have issues with embracing such a public medium and would, therefore, need to use it in a fairly restricted, less than open manner. Openness does present difficulties and those fully able to embrace such openness should respect the desire for some to retain a degree of protection whilst also making use of new communication networks.  Indeed, this post was prompted by hearing of someone with a locked account being hassled on why they chose to utilise the medium in a restricted way, rather than to embrace openness and reap the benefits of doing so.

For some, the full advantages of Twitter need to be balanced with their own personal safety. They see a medium that will be beneficial to them personally or professionally, but are conscious of the fact that, actually, engaging with the medium fully and openly might leave them open to risk. Take, for example, women who have been (or continue to be) harassed by stalkers. Fully embracing social media presents a number of risks and serious considerations. Embrace the public and open approach to the use of social media others encourage and they risk making themselves vulnerable to further harassment. On the other hand, avoiding the medium altogether means that they entirely cut themselves off from fellow professionals and access to a useful information medium because of the fear of further harassment, and why should anyone be prevented from engaging in a medium because of fear?

For others, it is about job security. An increasing number of people have to be cautious about what they share and how they share it. One person’s innocuous comment is another’s cause for disciplinary action. We will see the need to tread carefully become ever more important as we move towards increased privatisation of public services.  Whilst it is also true that the public sector is hardly a liberal social media zone, with controls and restrictions often placed on public sector workers keen to embrace social media, the private sector can be even more restrictive. The corporate brand is primary. Perceptions that the brand is damaged, even through activities in personal time, can lead to serious consequences. For example, a higher education institution may be more tolerant towards employees actively (and legally) expressing political viewpoints, whilst a private company may be less than tolerant. (I am intending on writing a separate post about the privatisation of HE and its possible consequences – this being one of the areas I plan on exploring.)

Ultimately, for some, a locked Twitter account is the only rational solution. It enables engagement (albeit restricted) but it also ensures that there is an element of control. It seems curious, therefore, that some would question the rationale of being on Twitter with a locked account. It suggests a lack of awareness or understanding of the reasons why others might feel the need to have some form of protection. That it is usually men who question the value of locked Twitter accounts (certainly in the experience of those with locked accounts who have talked to me about their experiences), speaks volumes. Not least because of their failure to understand that there might well be specific reasons why individuals choose to engage in the medium in this way.

There is also an element to this that is somewhat egocentric (perhaps unsurprising for social media, a medium that is predominantly ego-driven). For some, using mediums such as Twitter ‘properly’ means ensuring as many people as possible can see what they have to say. The medium becomes all about what they have to say to others, rather than what they can learn from others. I think this is where, sometimes, social media can become problematic, particularly tools such as Twitter. Generate a certain following and you run the risk of believing that everything you have to say is important and must reach an audience. But surely tools such as Twitter are about more than that? Surely it is as much about learning from other people as it is about sharing your ideas and perceptions? In which case, why is a locked account perceived by some as a handicap?

If one is to view social media as a forum by which people learn from others, surely the restrictions a user places on themselves are immaterial? They are getting value from the medium, just in a different way from those who choose to adopt an open approach. Who are we to determine whether an individual is getting a satisfactory level of value from their use of a medium? Isn’t this somewhat arrogant? Doesn’t it also suggest a degree of ignorance of the society in which we live? That for some the only way they can engage in such forums is in a highly restrictive form? It is for this reason that anonymity on the internet also needs to be protected and efforts to curb anonymity must be resisted. Yes, anonymity can be used as a cover for unpleasant actions, but it can also be used by the vulnerable to protect themselves from oppression (anonymity did, after all, play a role in some of the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings).

Twitter isn’t all about building an audience for yourself. There is a place for that and there is absolutely nothing wrong with using it as a platform to attempt to spread your beliefs or to campaign or raise awareness of issues you are passionate about. But we must also remember that Twitter and social media are as much about what we receive as what we broadcast. And, so long as we continue to live in a society that enables harassment of women, or restricts individual freedom, we should not judge those who engage in the medium in such a way others may perceive to be limited and contrary to their belief that social media demands openness to be an effective tool.

With anonymity and locked accounts we should not be challenging those who use such methods to engage with social media. We should be asking what is it about our society that means that people adopt these tactics for their own personal safety and security?  What is it about our society that prevents some people from embracing an open, public approach to social media? What is it about our society that means people have to put up barriers to protect themselves? Locked accounts and anonymity should not concern us; a society that makes these the only logical means by which individuals can engage in public forums most definitely should.

  • ellyob

    Firstly, a great and thought-provoking post.

    However, I think your comments about the public/private sector are rather sweeping generalisations, albeit ones that may be based on the evidence of your own experience and that of others you have spoken to. If you think about people who have faced disciplinary action over tweets, some have been private sector (e.g. the accountant who knocked over a cyclist: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/driver-in-bloodycylists-storm-found-guilty-after-knocking-cyclist-off-his-bike-8949449.html) but quite a few I have heard about have been in the public sector (e.g. nurses being struck off for revealing patient details http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2433011/Nurses-sacked-posting-pictures-online-wearing-incontinence-pads-tweet-patients-personal-details.html). In both of these cases the public medium is what led to the discovery of their actions, but the actions in themselves were what led to dismissal/prosecution. Comments about brand are also potentially a bit inaccurate, bringing the organisation into disrepute is something anyone can be sacked for and as you say many public sector organisations are increasingly brand aware!

    The thing I love most about Twitter is the flexibility in how users can choose to engage with the medium, which is what you are saying too. I use it primarily for professional matters, but also talk about a variety of inane non-professional topics! I think it is a shame that people have to use protected accounts as it does limit the scope of your interactions (e.g. there can be nice serendipitous interactions when using a hashtag). However, I do not judge anyone for choosing to interact in that way as it is their Twitter account to use as they wish and they do not need to justify that to anyone. When watching TV recently and simultaneously monitoring the relevant hashtag I was astonished at the vitriol (misogynistic, racist, derogatory) some espouse on Twitter. That certainly provided an insight in to why some people choose to have a protected account!

    • Ian

      Hi Elly, thanks for your comment.

      I accept that these are generalisations, however I would challenge the evidence you cite that undermines my central point about the public/private issue. In terms of the nurses, I think that that example is a clear breach of contract. Healthcare professionals should be clear that leaking confidential patient data is likely to lead to instant dismissal. I think the medium is irrelevant, although social media makes it easier to identify people who have been stupid enough to leak such data publicly. I think, by and large (and this is a generalisation), in the public sector it needs to be very clear that you have breached the terms of your contract before you are dismissed. In the private sector, however, it isn’t always necessarily clear that what you tweet may cause you to lose your job. What can bring an institution into disrepute is a bit vague, but I wonder whether the definition is broader in the private sector than it is in the public sector.

      What I would also add is that the increase privatisation of the public sector is driving part of the problem. For example, in a public sector body that is purely without corporate interests you can say what you like about other organisations that do not employ you. However, for example, should you work at the British Library I would imagine you are not allowed to take a hardline on human rights abuses in Qatar (I could be wrong about that, maybe they are relaxed about it). This restriction on freedom of speech comes about because of the influence of private capital and the risk to this private capital through overt public criticism – which therefore may lead to dismissal due to bringing the organisation into disrepute.

      I would also add, using the example of law librarians, that you can tweet things and not even be aware of the implications in terms of your employer. One could express a viewpoint that creates an issue with a client or a potential client which would therefore result in serious consequences for the individual tweeter (this is my understanding why many law librarians are locked – but again, I could be wrong on this).

      I think, therefore, that is clearer what you might face disciplinary action for in the public sector as it is clearer what could be termed as bringing the organisation into disrepute. In the private sector, however, that definition can, I believe, be much broader and take into account aspects the individual would have no awareness of. However, I should also say that this applies to public sector bodies either working in partnership with the private sector or with some sort of private sector influence. It is, to my mind, when the private sector creeps in that dangers can emerge in terms of communications and being seen to represent your employer.

      But this is all me pondering rather than setting out something I believe to be an absolute so happy to hear alternative perspectives! For what it’s worth, I never tweet specifics about my workplace, make any negative or critical comments about my workplace or work or comment about colleagues. I’m happy to share my day-to-day activities at work in terms of workload or to discuss general issues that affect my specific line of work, but I have always believed that it is necessary to be very cautious in your public pronouncements about your employer or colleagues.

      And yes, some of the horrific abuse you see on Twitter does make you understand why people might feel the need to lock themselves down. But again, as I was getting at in my post, I think the focus should be on what is enabling this rather than seeing the locking down as a solution. But then, will we ever be able to satisfactorily deal with that issue? Possibly, and depressingly, not.