What sex on the beach has in common with foolish tweeting

Remember the woman who was arrested for having sex on the beach in Dubai and nearly went to prison? I used to work with her.

And I think the experience she went though has more in common with the pitfalls of social media than may be immediately obvious.  

It was a topic (the pitfalls of social media, not sex on the beach) that came up at last night’s Digital Citizens event.

You see in both cases, intellectually we know the rules, but we gradually get used to behaving in another way, and are then shocked when something goes wrong.

During the time I worked in the Middle East, it was a confusing bubble that didn’t match up with what I’d been told to expect.

Before I arrived, I anticipated a highly conservative culture, and certainly little in the way of booze.

But once I lived there, I discovered a world where effectively you lived like you were on a (not so cheap) package holiday. Drink flowed and anything went.

It felt just like you were entirely free to do what you wanted. It was easy to forget that you were a guest in an Islamic country. Particularly because the enforcement of the rules was unlikely.

Until a line got crossed. At which point, authority came down like a tonne of bricks. And a drunk former colleague of mine ended up internationally infamous for the most ill-advised liaison of all time.

By that point I’d been long gone from the UAE, but I could see exactly how it happened. When your behaviour has no consequences on most days, it comes as a shock on the day it does.

As Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues in The Black Swan, humans convince themselves by a pattern of events where everything goes okay that it’s going to carry on going okay. Until the black swan comes along and they get into trouble.

It’s true for social media.

Pretty much everybody working in the media and marketing industry knows the rules. If you argue on Twitter/ slag off a client / make indiscreet revelations/ twitpic embarrassing photos then you might get into trouble if it reflects on your employer.

Except, generally you don’t.

Generally nothing bad happens when you make a witty observation or two. You swap a bit of banter, and still nothing happens. So you go a bit further.

It’s too easy to forget that you’ve got an invisible audience of your few hundred or thousand followers, in a way you wouldn’t if you were standing in front of them in real life.

Until suddenly – bam – you cross an invisible line. Your client sees an ill-advised tweet, or the press gets hold of it.

Perhaps the most notable case locally to date was the one involving a PR agency boss who criticised his client Telstra’s delivery policies over phone books several times on Twitter. You can bet your life, he didn’t feel outrageous as he was doing it.

Often when somebody does suddenly find themselves the wrong side of the line they’d forgotten was there, it’s a shock. And the immediate response is anger, or outrage that their comments are now reaching a wider forum than they intended. You may have known the rules, but it still doesn’t feel fair.  (I’ve noticed that people sometimes use the phrase “Slow news day?” when they’re written about. Oddly it’s a question people only tend to pose when they’re the subject of negative rather than positive stories.)

I can remember one occasion I wrote about where a PR got into a public row with a prominent newspaper columnist and had to apologise to them. I suspect the whole thing came as a surprise to them. The problem is, your tweets are something of a binary state – you’re either in no trouble at all, or you’re in a lot of trouble.

Even yesterday, several people forwarded me links to a Twitter row between social media guru Laurel Papworth and a couple of tweeters who had criticised her. Mud flew both ways – in truth none of the parties covered themselves in glory. It was mildly amusing, mainly because of the funny Twitpoll one of them created, so I eventually wrote a short diary piece.

However, Papworth (with a Twitter following of 20,000) was outraged that some form of rules had been breached. By writing the story I was, she claimed in a tweet, a cyber bully who had picked on her because she was a woman. (For the record Laurel, your wisdom makes it onto Mumbrella purely on its own merits.)

But I digress.

Bullets are dodged all the time without people even knowing it.

You see, there are plenty of times where I spot a tweet, or more often have one pointed out to me by someone else, and decide it’s nearly, but not quite, worth a story.The Papworth one is a classic example. When she was just being mean to a couple of tweeters, people pointed it out, but it wasn’t worth covering, until the poll got published.

I’d anticipated that last night’s Digital Citizens would carry a tone of the panel bemoaning the loss of free speech. But although that was hinted at, it was mostly a sensible recognition that if you want freedom of speech, you also still have to take responsibility for what you say.

Based on the advice of the panel, and particularly Ogilvy’s Sam North, you’d think the rules of the game are so clear that nobody will ever make a social media PR mistake again.

In reality, people will go back to gradually being seduced by the pattern of the days where nothing goes wrong.

Because, despite all of the warnings and all of the explanations of the rules, the invisible audience will quickly fade back into the background again.

Before you know it, the next ill advised tweet will be a headline – no matter how many warnings you are given about staying away from the beach.

Tim Burrowes


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