For the few of you out there who haven’t heard of it, Twitter (http://twitter.com) is to social-networking Web sites like MySpace and Facebook what a haiku is to an epic poem. You open a Twitter profile page, select a username, and post very short messages of 140 characters or less (called “tweets”) on the site. If people like what you’re “tweeting” about, they can “follow,” or subscribe, to your tweets. You can search on the site for tweets on specific topics (such as a recent news event) and communicate to a limited extent with other twitterers by following each other’s tweets.

Many authors, celebrities and other public figures use Twitter (as they do other social-networking Web sites) to build an online fan base. There are even rumors that Twitter might actually be used to conduct business online. Both the power and the perils of Twitter were brought home to me in a recent live presentation I gave at a trade show in Los Angeles. While I was speaking onstage, I noticed a woman in the front row was busy typing away at her laptop computer with her head down. I thought she was ignoring me, and frankly, I was a little miffed — as a professional speaker I know there are always a few people who aren’t paying rapt attention to my program, but usually they have the courtesy to hide in the back rows where I can’t see them.

During the intermission, I approached the lady and asked her, my voice dripping with irony, if she was enjoying my presentation. She looked up at me and said, “Oh, yes, very much, and my two friends who are also here today agree. You see, we came to the show to listen to three speakers, and unfortunately, you were all scheduled to speak at the same time. So each of us went to one of the presentations with our laptops, and we’re posting tweets on Twitter letting each other know what the speakers are saying. It’s like we can be in three places at once. So far, we all agree you’re the best speaker, by the way … .”

Well, needless to say I changed my opinion of the situation pretty quickly. I actually spoke a bit slower during the second half of my presentation so the front-row twitterer could keep up with me. Since my talk was on social networking for small business, I even told the audience what the woman in front was doing, and it turned out there were two other people in the crowd who were posting their “real-time” reactions to their presentation on their blogs.

At first I was flattered as heck — these people were making me an Internet star! But on the plane going back to New York the next day, another thought occurred to me: these people — especially the front-row twitterer — were copying my PowerPoint slides and putting my whole presentation up on the Internet — 140 characters at a time — without my permission. If anyone rips off one of my presentations and posts it on their Web site (it does happen from time to time), I send them a nasty letter accusing them of copyright infringement and insisting they take my content down to avoid being sued. How does that differ from what the twitterer was doing? 
When tweeting, you are publishing content on the Web just the same as you would on a blog or Web site, only shorter, and the same rules apply:

• Do not copy someone else’s content without their approval — even though virtually all tweets are only a few words and, taken individually, probably would be considered “fair use” under the copyright laws; a string of tweets copying someone else’s material probably would be lumped together as a single communication, so the length limits wouldn’t apply;
• Don’t make any statement of fact about another person in a tweet, especially one that puts them in a negative or embarrassing light, unless you know it’s 100 percent true and can prove it in court;
• Don’t post anything about yourself on the site that you wouldn’t want a total stranger reading 1,000 years from now.

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