You know that something new has gone mainstream when the employment lawyers get involved. So it is now with Twitter, the microblogging service that is currently taking over the universe.
Twitter has grown rapidly and enormously. There are approximately six million users right now. This is much smaller than Facebook or MySpace, the older members of the social-media set. But the pace of growth has been incredible; one source pegged it at 1,000 percent in 2008 alone. By most accounts, the demographics of Twitter users skew older and more professional than Facebook. For example, 52% of Twitter users are 35 or older, compared to just 19% of Facebook users. That makes sense, since Facebook began as a college-oriented site. Also, it is said that "Facebook is about people you used to know; Twitter is about people you'd like to know better." (The widely repeated quote is from a Globe and Mail article by Ivan Tossel, but you have to pay to read it.)
Some of you may still be asking, “What is this Twitter thing, anyway?” (“And don’t say microblogging again, because that doesn’t help.”) Twitter is a free service that allows users to send very short messages (called tweets) over the web to people who (in theory) care. How short is very short? No more than 140 characters, including spaces and punctuation. In fact, they even have a name for a tweet that is exactly 140 characters long: it’s called a “twoosh.”
According to the site itself, the messages are supposed to answer the question, “What are you doing?” To be sure, most people don’t care to learn about the humdrum of your daily life: “I’m still in line for my venti nonfat extra-hot latte.” Or “Mr. Biddles rolled over again. Silly cat. LOL.” That sort of tweet is of value to exactly no one. (Even Mr. Biddles would cough up that hairball.)
Where it does become valuable to businesspeople is where people answer the question, “What are you thinking about?” Or: “What is interesting to you?” Then you try to find other people who might share your interests, and you “follow” them to learn what they’re thinking about. Often, they will reciprocate by following you. Done right, people can use Twitter as a powerful networking service to get in front of potential clients or colleagues within their industry.
As often happens when employees start doing something new, companies soon want their lawyers or HR people to create policies to restrict it. This happened in the Nineties, when employers got nervous about email and internet usage. More recently, companies have instituted blogging policies, and guidelines for the use of MySpace or Facebook. So it’s no surprise that we’re starting to see requests for Twitter policies.
Longtime readers of Gruntled Employees know how I feel about the hyperlegislation of the workplace by zealous policymakers. Well-meaning HR professionals and employment lawyers tend to throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to policing employee behavior, whether online or not. I generally advocate a simpler approach that involves treating employees as grown-ups who have judgment. See, for example, “A two-word corporate blogging policy” and “The world’s shortest employee handbook.”
With that said, here is my take at a corporate Twitter policy that has the extra added benefit of being itself twitterable:
Our Twitter policy: Be professional, kind, discreet, authentic. Represent us well. Remember that you can’t control it once you hit “update.”
And yes — that's a twoosh: exactly 140 characters of pure employment-law goodness.
By the way, you can follow me on Twitter at @jayshep — as long as you follow the policy, too.
[By the way, without realizing it, I totally boosted the cat-rolling-over bit from Guy Kawasaki's excellent post, "Looking for Mr. Goodtweet: How to Pick Up Followers on Twitter."]