Unmasking our privacy, one tweet at a time

Illustration licensed through Creative Commons for transformative use. Find the original at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/carrotcreative/ / CC BY 2.0

It was a brutal loss, the kind that sends UNC basketball fans into an emotional tailspin. Georgia Tech walloped the Tar Heels two weeks ago, adding insult to a season already full of physical and emotional injury.

There was no shortage of reactions. Commentators howled. Fans scowled. And the coaching staff seemed on the verge of exasperation.

The next day, two of the players found time to laugh at the misfortune.

It’s not a response you could have heard at a press conference or read in a newspaper article. The laughs came from the boisterous Twitter account of freshman guard Dexter Strickland, who posted a goofy pic of how he and teammate John Henson attempt to attend class incognito on days after losses.

Such a lighthearted tone fits right in with Strickland’s twitter stream, no matter how rough the season gets. He’s joked about the embarrassment of being stared at by the bus stop after a loss, or in hearing ESPN commentators criticize the team. That’s when he’s not tweeting about class, his pet snake, boring hotel rooms or accidentally walking out of the grocery store without paying for bottled water.

Strickland is no anomaly. His account is merely the most lively example of an entire team (notably Henson, Will Graves, Ed Davis, and Larry Drew) that has embraced Twitter as the method of choice to broadcast the daily details that never make it into on-the-record interviews. Following them this season has softened my perspective on Tar Heel basketball. As a UNC grad I still get emotional watching games, but the losses have been much easier to take after hearing unfiltered accounts from the players on the court.

We forget they’re just kids, barely out of high school. Twitter makes that fact abundantly clear, and instantly puts their growing pains on the hardcourt into perspective. It personalizes the players and makes it more enjoyable to root for them even during bad seasons.

It also takes fan voyeurism to a whole new level. Pro athletes have learned to filter their Twitter accounts somewhat, pressured by the leagues and franchises who write their multi-million dollar checks not to post anything offensive. But in the college ranks, even players for a program that has millions of devoted fans garner just a few thousand Twitter followers. It’s just far enough under the radar that their every word won’t be scrutinized.

But I wonder, is it only a matter of time before one errant post is torn apart online?

Twitter is no stranger to sports. I blogged several weeks ago on the BCS’ attempts to use it for PR purposes. Georgia Tech’s coach, following that lopsided win against UNC, even used it to lash back at critics and defend the performance of his team.

But when you’re dealing with youngsters, privacy becomes an issue and a concern. We’ve all said stupid things in college. We probably said stupid things last week. What if they got out into the blogosphere for the world to see? It’s an almost inevitable result once you’re accustomed to immediately broadcasting every thought. The nightmare happened just last month for University of Oregon wide receiver Jamere Holland, whose profanity-laced Facebook status updates cost him his collegiate football career.

The Internet is littered with such horror stories of the private error becoming a unerasable public humiliation. Many of the most horrifying are chronicled in The Future of Reputation, an excellent account by law professor Daniel Solove on the dangers of spreading too much information online. Discussing the book in class this week has served as an interesting counterpoint to the ethos of The Cluetrain Manifesto (another book assigned in my curriculum), which preaches the virtue of letting employees communicate directly to consumers without restrictions or filters.

Ideally we’d all like to hear an unedited account from the companies we buy from, the colleagues we spend time with or the athletes we cheer for. The tweets from UNC’s players have proven a wonderful way to lighten up an otherwise gloomy season. I hope they continue. But there’s a risk that can’t be forgotten with social media. As effectively as it can connect in an instant, it has the power to decimate reputations just as fast. That kind of power demands some degree of caution, or else victory in real life could be forever tarnished by stupidity in cyberspace.

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