140 thoughtless characters cost dear in academia

Which self are you expressing when you vent online? west.m

The censuring of an academic in the US for sending out an offensive tweet has led many university tweeters to pause for thought.

Geoffrey Miller, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of New Mexico tweeted in June that “obese” PhD applicants who don’t “have the willpower to stop eating carbs” won’t “have the willpower to write a dissertation”.

Miller claimed that his tweet related to his research but the university has rejected this excuse. He now faces sensitivity training on obesity and will have his work supervised.

Many Twitter users make potentially offensive comments on the site but should we expect more from academics? Do academics, as employees of publicly funded institutions, have a responsibility to behave professionally when they are representing those institutions?

I would argue, yes, without a doubt. When an academic attends a conference, they wear a badge with their own name and the name of their institution and a certain level of professional conduct is expected. An academic conference is clearly a “work” space where one is surrounded by colleagues. A conference is (usually) fairly constrained by time and location. We travel to the conference, behave as our “conference self” and travel home again. It is similar to the journey we make to the office every day, or the different self we might show when we join our friends for a night out, or the different self again that comes out at a family gathering.

But Twitter is a much more complicated space than a conference or a family gathering. It is not constrained by space or time. We can take Twitter with us to both of these events and more. Is it fair to expect that academics present their professional self on Twitter at all times?

Would it be fair to expect that an academic in a supermarket is representing his or her institution while they do the family shopping? If they were rude to the cashier, would that reflect badly on their employer? If not, does that mean that some public spaces should be considered professional spaces and others not? Is Twitter a public space or a professional space?

The phrase “opinions my own” is seen at the bottom of many Twitter biographies. If there is a certain expectation that an academic tweeting with their own name should behave as their professional self, is this expectation diminished by this disclaimer? Would Geoffrey Miller’s tweet have had any less impact if he had been using this disclaimer, or if he had been tweeting using a pseudonym? In the case of Miller, the subject of his tweet was clearly linked to his institution. It would be difficult to argue that the tweet had no bearing on his academic work when the question of admissions systems and discrimination had been raised. The University of New Mexico had no choice but to investigate Miller, and ultimately to enforce a combination of reprimand and retraining.

Miller’s unlocked profile, use of his real name, and use of popular hashtag “#truth” probably all contributed to the speed with which the tweet, and subsequent outrage, was able to spread. These are choices that Miller made that UNM was ultimately forced to take some responsibility for.

There are some risks involved in tweeting publicly in a way that can be linked to one’s professional identity. One misguided tweet, even from a “personal” Twitter account (if there can be such a thing), can cause embarrassment and damage to professional reputation, potentially harming job prospects and working relationships. This embarrassment can spill over on to the employer, as in Miller’s case, creating a need for clear guidelines designed to protect the employer’s image and set out fair consequences for breaching those guidelines. What’s more, academics are increasingly collaborating across departments and institutions, so it may not be just your employer that is implicated when you overstep the mark.

But, perhaps more importantly, the employee needs protection too. Any guidelines should clarify the circumstances when a Twitter account can be considered “personal” and when it should be considered a professional profile. This should be done in such a way as to protect the employee’s freedom to share their own opinions and allow them to present their other selves on social media if they wish to. It would be difficult and unfair for an employer to declare that they “own” all social media space and that an employee (academic or otherwise) may participate as a representative of that employer or not at all. This is particularly true in academia, where freedom of expression is an essential part of the job.

When we visit the supermarket, we should all be polite to the cashier, whether we are an academic, an MP, a teacher, a nurse, or a plumber. In the same respect, we should all behave in a decent and non-discriminatory way on Twitter. The question is to what extent we take this responsibility for ourselves and to what extent we also take on this responsibility as a representative of our employer. Here lie many unanswered questions that must be taken into account when drawing up clear and fair guidelines that protect employees and employers and allow them to enjoy the potential benefits of social media.