The power and problems of twitter

Paul Boag

I take no pleasure in this post. I do not like embarrassing myself in public. However, I need to both publicly apologise and also share a valuable lesson in the use of twitter. If you use twitter, please read this post. It is important that you do not make the same mistake.

I love twitter. I think it is amazingly powerful tool, but I have also seen people post some pretty dumb things on it. I have seen people forget the public nature of twitter and post personal things. I have seen people post when they are drunk. However although these can be embarrassing, they pale into insignificance when compared to the consequences of a post I made today.

Today, I was travelling to see relatives in Somerset to celebrate Christmas. We do it every year and although I love to see them it feels a long way for a short meal. To make matters worse I was tired and rundown. I just could not face it. This led me to post the following to twitter…

Off to somerset to endure a ‘christmas meal’ with the extended family.

What should have been a simple journey turned into a nightmare. First we encountered an accident and had to turn around and then twice we found the road blocked by floods. A 2 hour journey took well over 3 hours. Little did we know this was a part of a much larger problem.

While sitting in traffic caused by the floods, I posted the following…

This is turning into the journey from hell. Two roads closed because of floods. One road because of an accident.

Eventually we arrived and we joined the family celebration. By this time I was exhausted and even grumpier than when I started out. In my grumpy mood, I made another post to twitter, this time using brightkite

Help me. Please help me. –

This post had terrible consequences for two reasons unforseen by me…

  • I failed to put my characteristic smiley at the end. What I meant as a joke about ‘enduring a Chistmas meal with the extended family’ read as a serious request for help.
  • Also because it was sent it from Brightkite my location was included. The problem was that the location was incorrect. Instead of it showing me safe in the middle of Minehead, it showed me as being in the middle of nowhere!

The combination of wrong location, lack of smiley, my previous twitter about road conditions and the BBC reports on flooding led one of my followers to be concerned about my well being.

This person decided to call the local Fire service and express some concern about my well being. He has since emailed me and I want to share what happened…

I hasten to add I didn’t call them on 999, just their local number, and I did try to emphasise the ‘it’s probably nothing, but…’ card. I just wouldn’t have forgiven myself if it *had* been something serious and I hadn’t mentioned it to someone who could at least look into it.

The result was the fire service dispatched two fire engines to attempt to find me. They fearing I was caught in the flood!

You can only imagine my horror when they called me angry at what appeared to be a hoax. I have huge respect for the fire service and hated the thought that my actions had hampered their efforts to help people really suffering because of the weather.

After explaining what happened on the phone they were incredibly understanding. I apologised profusely and said I would do everything I could to make others aware of the dangers of irresponsible twittering! (hence this post). I have also donated to the Fire Fighters Charity, which (to add insult to injury) is one of my clients!

Some have suggested that the caller was naive to call the Fire Service in the first place, as if I was able to twitter surely I was able to call on a mobile. However as his email made clear, he did take all precautions and I am nothing but thankful to him for showing me such concern.

It is wonderful that the twitter community is such a caring one and I love the fact that those following me do genuinely care. However, this shows that twitter can also have serious real world consequences if not handled responsibly.

Please learn from my mistakes and think twice before posting on twitter. Check what you are posting and ensure it cannot be misread especially out of context.