Public, Private and The Culture In Between

A few weeks ago a conversation I was involved with on Twitter became a news story. The details of the conversation aren’t really important but the gist of it is the Louisville Orchestra made an odd scheduling decision, I commented on it and then commented again when the LO didn’t respond. Because the conversation took place between two public accounts on Twitter other people saw and joined in the conversation. That’s the way Twitter works and it’s great. As the conversation continued and the LO finally responded quite flippantly a local arts reporter got interested.

The reporter reached out to me on Twitter for a comment on the story. I had no interest in being part of her story in any way. I also didn’t want to be rude. It seemed like common courtesy to respond to the reporter in private and decline to comment, so that’s what I did. Instead of saying something like “Michelle Jones declined to comment” the reporter copied and pasted the private message I sent her.

To recap: she asked me (through her public Twitter account) to speak with her so that my words could be included in her story, I privately declined to do so (through a Twitter Direct Message between just she and I). By publishing words that I expressly chose to be private the reporter disregarded wishes that I thought were perfectly clear.

When I voiced my displeasure about the reporter’s actions I was scolded and told “unless you expressly say ‘THIS IS OFF THE RECORD’ you have to assume a reporter will publish everything.” Aha, I see now. And I 100% disagree.

I couldn’t explain exactly why I disagree so strongly until my friend Sarah tweeted about a conference she was attending. She said:

“I’m not going to live tweet much of this conference because there’s not a culture of tweeting & people don’t realize statements [are] public”

There it is: culture. And secondarily: respect.

The statements Sarah would be hearing at the conference were in fact public but posting everything she heard would be a violation of the conference community’s standards of accepted (and expected) behavior. Though no one had said “THIS IS OFF THE RECORD” she knew that people were not expecting and did not want their every word posted. She respected the people, the environment she was in and its culture. The statements she chose not to post exist somewhere between public and private.

Now would be a good time to mention that the reporter in my situation not only published my private message but she also “outed” a friend I’ll call Jules. Jules doesn’t list her real name anywhere on her Twitter account nor does she ever mention, by name, the company she works for. Since Jules participated in the same conversation I did the arts reporter decided to play investigator. She dug around until she found some mention of Jules’s real name. From there she hit LinkedIn and found the company Jules works for and her exact job title. The reporter published all of those details in her story.

So let’s talk about culture and respect. To my mind the reporter completely misunderstands the culture of Twitter. To a “Twitter native” (for lack of a better term) it would be obvious that a direct message shouldn’t be published in a public forum. It would also be obvious to someone immersed in Twitter that if someone doesn’t use her real name on her account she doesn’t want those two things to be connected. Essentially: “if it’s on Twitter it might be public but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s for publication.” It might be somewhere between public and private.

Seemingly the reporter was observing the culture of print journalism. As best as I can tell that culture’s standard is that the reporter feels good about publishing any piece of factual information she can dig up. Essentially: “if it’s public I can print it.”

These two cultures are fundamentally different. If a reporter is going to mine Twitter for story ideas shouldn’t she learn and respect the differences? I think so.

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