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Twitter and Personality

Something curious happened in Major League Baseball last week: Several MLB.com beat writers tweeted that they’d been told to stop using their Twitter accounts for anything but baseball coverage. Those tweets were later deleted, as were tweets from MLB.com writers who said they’d created new personal Twitter accounts. HardballTalk’s Aaron Gleeman broke the story, which soon turned into a he-said, he-said with MLB spokespeople.

MLB maintains the brief furor was a misunderstanding in response to an email reminder that writers be aware of what’s tweeted, and says no policy or mandate has been issued. And MLB.com’s Phillies writer, Todd Zolecki, did tweet that it wasn’t true that other topics were strictly forbidden, adding they’d been told to “try to keep it baseball-related because of Twitter feed on MLB.com homepage, but we can comment on other things.”

It struck me as odd that multiple beat writers would mistake a gentle reminder for a mandate, or independently decide to delete tweets discussing the issue. (Even if you give MLB.com the benefit of the doubt, someone there needs to bone up on their memo-writing skills.) But whatever the case, the story does spotlight a lack of consensus about how sportswriters – or any newsmaker or communicator, for that matter – ought to use Twitter.

Twitter is so new that the idea of Twitter etiquette still seems faintly ridiculous, but there are two schools of thought about personal tweets.

Most everybody agrees that the two-way communication possibilities of Twitter and other forms of social media are changing people’s expectations about how they interact with writers, athletes, entertainers and companies, to name just a few entities. The audience can now talk back, and does so loudly and publicly – a sea change from the era of letters to the editor and even email. And there is a growing expectation to respond – if not to everything, then at least to some things. Twitter itself creates pressure to do so: To me, one of the remarkable things about it is how effectively it flattens out status and power. 140 characters and an @ symbol turn out to be powerful equalizers.

But none of that addresses tricky questions for those of us who serve news and/or commentary to a decent-sized Twitter audience: How often can our tweets depart from the subject at hand without annoying readers? When does personality become noise?

One school of thought says social media is making readers want to know more about writers who were previously anonymous bylines. The occasional personal tweet – whether it’s about music or favorite haunts or even what you just had for lunch – builds a stronger connection, making for deeper engagement and more-loyal readers. That’s good for writers’ own visibility, but it also makes them more valuable for their employers.

But there’s another point of view on that. Tweets are increasingly fed into Web sites as part of their news mix, with sites following a Twitter list and showing all tweets from the writers on that list. (MLB.com has such a feed, as Zolecki referenced.) In a situation like that, readers want news – and non-baseball tweets look like noise. And there are readers for whom Twitter is primarily a one-way conversation – a real-time, exactly configured personalized news feed. To readers who use Twitter this way, personal tweets look like noise.

I generally agree with the first point of view. Personal tweets from writers I follow have definitely made me more interested in those writers and their work, and mad$e me more likely to reach out to them with a message. (Similarly, I’ve struck up conversations and formed relationships with people who have reached out to me.) As I’ve written before, I often find sportswriters looser and funnier on Twitter – and personality is a big part of that.

But there are plenty of Twitter readers who aren’t like me – and in my case, there’s an added complication. I tweet about digital journalism, the Mets and Star Wars, and am keenly, sometimes painfully aware that most of my Twitter followers are interested in only one of those things. When I see I’ve been added to a Twitter list, I sometimes wince, trying not to calculate how many of my tweets won’t fit that list’s purpose. (It would help a lot if hashtags — #mlb, #mets, #starwars, #journalism, etc. – didn’t count against Twitter’s 140-character limit, and you could follow someone on Twitter but subtract certain hashtags from the news feed. Some Twitter services do offer such functionality, but it’s not mainstream yet.)

I’ve mulled breaking my Twitter identity into three, so that people who follow me could just get what they want. And maybe that would be wise. But it’s always struck me as a bit too calculating. And maybe it isn’t necessary: I’ve gotten pretty good at mentally filtering tweets as I scroll by them, and barely notice off-topic messages. I think a lot of Twitter users have learned to do the same.

Technology will solve some of these issues by giving readers more fine-tuned control. But some of the answers will be cultural ones: We’re still figuring Twitter out collectively, and deciding what the best practices are. Imagine we could fast-forward two or three years. I’d expect to find personal tweets accepted and even embraced as welcome notes of color and personality in our Twitter news feeds. But I wouldn’t be shocked to find out it’s the opposite. Perhaps we’ll have divided and tailored our Twitter identities to focus on specifics, mindful of all the ways those tweets are repurposed and reuse. Perhaps we’ll reserve personal tweets for our personal accounts, and wonder what we were thinking back when we mixed the two. Time will tell.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
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