For something so short—140 characters, max—a tweet can do a lot of damage.
Already in the Summer Games, two athletes have been kicked out for controversial tweets, and others were reprimanded for violating Olympic rules by using the social network to name their sponsors. One bad tweet could lose athletes not just their chance at medaling, but also the cash bonuses many countries and sponsors pay winners. Experts say the tweets could also affect their image, limiting future sponsorships and career opportunities.
There’s still plenty at stake if your own athletic feats are limited to the occasional treadmill session at the gym. The immediacy of the medium makes it tough to rein in a tweet once posted: Even if you delete it or use a private account, screenshots, retweets and simple cutting-and-pasting can spread it, fast. As we’ve previously reported, controversial tweets can get you in trouble with your bosses or the law. We found a number of tweets that had serious financial impact, in some cases generating costs in excess of $500,000.
The biggest lesson to be learned: think before you tweet. Columbia University chief digital officer and journalism professor Sree Sreenivasan says he waits an extra three to six minutes after writing a tweet before he posts. Etiquette expert Anna Post, co-author of “Emily Post’s Etiquette,” gives herself five to 10 minutes, and may ask a friend to read it over. “Anything you think is a joke or a jab… can really miss the mark,” she says. “A hundred and forty characters is not enough to be clear sometimes, but it sure is enough rope to hang yourself with.”
To avoid getting tangled, experts say, writers should treat the content of every tweet like it’s reaching an audience of millions—even if their list of followers tops out in double figures. “Imagine every tweet you write on the front page of your hometown newspaper,” Sreenivasan says. Word is likely to spread faster if you’re tweeting on a hot topic — plenty of media outlets are following Olympics-related tweets of average citizens as well as those of athletes, and there’s considerable scrutiny on other trending stories.
If you post something that you later regret, the best course of action is to delete it and apologize, Post says: “It’s not just about expunging it, it’s about acknowledging the mistake.”