Rory Cellan-Jones

A question of Netiquette...

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 1 Sep 08, 16:42 GMT

What's public and what's private on the web? And, with that in mind, how careful should we be about the way we express ourselves and how much we give away? Two questions on my mind lately..

The other day, for instance, I wrote a light-hearted piece on this blog about the Scrabulous affair, the main point of which was to offer readers a simple, and hopefully amusing, puzzle, while throwing in a couple of observations about the dispute which has seen the Agarwalla brothers pitted against the might of Hasbro and Mattel.

Soon after the piece was published, I received a message from a Twitter "friend"- the slightly disconcerting thing about Twitter is that anybody can be your friend or "follower", as they're known, unless you actively block them. The message read "Why did you not mention Wordscraper?", referring to a new game the Agarwallas had invented which was intended to avoid charges of infringing copyright.

I was a little irritated by this, as my piece was intended as a bit of fun rather than an exhaustive inquiry into the Scrabulous affair - which, after all, is hardly Watergate. So I Tweeted back: "cos I couldn't be bothered", and thought no more about it. Now Twitter is a social network, which I use quite extensively as a kind of instant messaging service with friends, and that dictates the nature of the "tweets" - casual, throwaway remarks, not meant for posterity. I am smart enough to know that Twitter is not a private place - but still like to express myself there as freely as possible.

Anyway, I head nothing more after that reply, until this turned up on something called "The Quaequam Blog": "When I twittered Rory Cellan-Jones to ask why he didn't mention Wordscraper in his blog post about Scrabulous, he replied 'cos i couldn't be bothered!' Years from now, when British journalism has finally breathed its last, this phrase will be engraved on its tombstone."

Wow, so my throwaway remark has been turned into the basis for an indictment of the whole of British journalism.

A couple of days later the shoe was on the other foot. I reacted to a press release by describing it on Twitter as "new leader in rubbish PR stunt of 08". The PR man in question e-mailed me a couple of days later to say "Got your feedback via Twitter. You cut me deep!!!". I had forgotten that he too might be watching my "Tweets", but luckily he took it reasonably well.

So a useful reminder that Twitter - like so many other online forums - is a public place, and what you say there may be used in evidence against you. Now I write in a number of voices online - very straight and BBC in news pieces for the website, a rather more relaxed tone for this blog, and a downright shoddy, ungrammatical, and sometimes incoherent voice in places like Twitter. But perhaps I can no longer afford to be quite so careless. There is the option on Twitter to "protect" your updates - in other words to control who can see what you are saying. I haven't yet done that - it seems to go against the spirit of openness - but may need to consider it.

The other lesson we all need to learn is that giving too much away online leaves you open to identity theft. I got a message from Facebook the other day warning "we have detected suspicious activity on your Facebook account". The suggestion was that someone might be trying to steal my password or install malicious software onto my computer.

So, even if you're happy enough to take the risk of broadcasting your private jokes, thoughts, and opinions on the likes of Twitter and Facebook, try not to give away your date of birth or your home address. Not everyone out there has the best of intentions...


  • Comment number 1.

    You're one of a small number of people I follow on Twitter who I don't know personally, and I do so for the simple reason that it gives me a good indication of what the Beeb thinks is currently noteworthy in technology. What I find strange is the odd combination of the personal and the professional...and feeling like a voyeur into short personal (but not private) conversations between yourself and people I do know a bit. Professionally speaking it is very useful. Personally speaking, it's all a bit weird, isn't it! I try to keep my online interactions separate between personal and professional, but it is getting increasingly more difficult...and I'm not on t' radio like you are.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think the main issue here is the separation of work and personal. I've just checked out your Twitter timeline and it you appears to be a personal one. When you Tweet over there, you are tweeting as yourself and not in a professional capacity.

    I have a personal twitter account (hey, check me out @rosscbrown) and one for work - everyone knows that I’m just a jerk on my personal account whereas I'm professional (well...) over on the work account.

    I guess you just have to remind people that when you are posting on Twitter it is personal and not connected to your day job.

    At work we have to add a disclaimer to our blogs stating that it is personal and not connected to work - maybe twitter needs a profile field for such a notice...

  • Comment number 3.

    I think the problem (if there is one) may lie in the perception of other users of the internet, rather than in the niceties of personal/public information sharing. It all depends a lot on whether we allow respected, professional individuals to be human people with foibles and fickle moments as well. I don't see why we can't, but it's at the root of anyone's annoyance with your twitter updates, I'd guess.

    Personally, I don't have any problem with graded professionalism for different arenas, and indeed think it is pretty much necessary for the sanity of creative people - to be able to put whimsical, occasionally nonsensical thoughts out into the ether is a wonderful boon of the internet and I would hate to have it denied me by a need to maintain an image. Multiple usernames is obviously a way round it, but it annoys me that such a thing is necessary.

    Personally - having very few Twittering friends - I use Twitter for exactly this reason, to follow public people who are important to me (tv writers, minor actors, the Magazine since it bullied me into it) and get a feel for who these people really are when their coffee's gone cold and the cat's just been sick in the corner. I am glad there are some relatively well-known people out there willing to take the unfriendly feedback and snarky comments they undoubtedly get for doing so - it makes you real people for me, and I value it.

  • Comment number 4.

    I take your point Rory, but you yourself wrote recently in another blog post that "I decided that I really couldn't be bothered to write about the new iPhone".

    It does seem to be a key determinant in what you do, or don't write about!

  • Comment number 5.

    Oh no, don't protect your updates, Rory!

    Whilst I've considered it myself after encountering some less-than-complimentary people on Twitter, I think it's against the ethos of the site itself. And anyone who takes someone's hastily-written word on Twitter as law obviously doesn't know how to use the service properly.

    As rosscbrown mentions, perhaps you need to add a little disclaimer in your Twitter description?

  • Comment number 6.

    Twitter/text/blog/comment in haste, repent at leisure.
    In cyberspace words are like radioactivity, they stay around for a long time. And as you may have noticed not everyone is friendly (or even in the same reality).
    I don’t see anything as being `private` on the web, just potential hostages to fortune.

  • Comment number 7.

    I got a message from Facebook saying "we have detected suspicious activity on your account" ...

    Well, I've had some of those, and I don't even HAVE a Facebook account.

    I expect the fact that the email headers said "Language: Russian" was a complete coincidence. It's good to know that the nice people at Facebook are outsourcing work other countries to promote global economic development ;-)

  • Comment number 8.

    I really fail to see why sad people feel the need to access 'social networking' sites. If you can't make friends in the real world I suggest you get therapy!! I am proud to say I have not signed up to Beebo, Facebook, or any other alternative pseudo club. Anonymous blogging occasionally is good enough and keeps my identity and personal details out of the public domain. If you really feel the need to be loved by complete strangers, I understand that there are people out there who will provide such services for a small fee.

  • Comment number 9.

    Nowadays getting into a social networking site is inevitable. Social networking is now used to even find potential employees using sites like linkedin and even check up on people and their friends in facebook before hiring.
    So in such a situation it is quite wise to not to make off the cuff remarks. Saying something online is almost equivalent to saying something on a national network tv.

  • Comment number 10.

    re: ptcbus

    "Nowadays getting into a social networking site in inevitable"

    No it's not. Those friends I have met online have tried for years to get me on to these things and I've always said no (I value my privacy too much).

    Oddly enough, in recent weeks, every single person who has been trying to get me online has started to comment that they're sick and tired of Facebook/Bebo/Myspace et al and are just sticking to good old Instant Messaging from now on.

    Like I said then, flash in the pan technology.

  • Comment number 11.

    I really fail to see why sad people feel the need to access 'social networking' sites. If you can't make friends in the real world I suggest you get therapy!!


    I, like most people I suspect, use it to keep up with friends from the real world who are now spread far and wide around the world. Sharing photos and nes is much moer simple on facebook than having to send out masses of emails every time. It's also handy to keep up to date with the latest news of products, bands, developers etc. that you have an interest in.

    Those who think that social networking sights are for lonely people to make friends are rather missing the point. People like that go to chat sites instead.

  • Comment number 12.

    It's all about the seperation of Work and Personal, the problem with Twitter it's very much public, however I agree with yourself Rory people should realise tweets are often an off the cuff remark. I find your tweets rather amusing, along with billt's. You said the other day you were advised to put up a disclaimer, people should realise that given you don't directly affiliate your tweet's with the beeb it is personal. However twitter is bloody addictive though!


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