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Danger in 140 Characters or Less

The Problems of Twitter Unfiltered

I’ve become a Twitter addict, and I know I’m not alone. Depending on where you look, the number of Twitter users ranges from 1 million to tens of millions. Perhaps the most significant point of this online social media tool, though, isn’t the number of users but how they use Twitter.

Begun in March 2006 as a way to stay in touch with friends, Twitter — a privately funded startup in San Francisco — has since grown into a messaging service that works over multiple electronic devices by text messaging or the Internet. Users can input up to 140 characters that answer the question “What are you doing?” If you use Twitter, you know that question is moot. It’s what and whom you know that counts, and the more followers you have, the more clout you carry.
Companies large and small have jumped on the Twitter bandwagon to push brands and send company news. If you own a business, you don’t want a Twitter account if you require an attorney to pore over every word that goes public. But for some business owners and their employees, Twitter seems to beg them to parade their egos. And what feeds an ego more than knowledge of a company’s private information? If you work in the financial industry, you know how scary that last sentence sounds.
Twitter users can learn all sorts of financial tidbits, from news about penny stocks to currency exchange movements, among the untold number of messages sent by companies and individuals. Watching messages roll by and participating in that flow are two different things, though. The former is for entertainment and the latter can be like walking on crocodiles at Disneyland: The odds of tripping up in public are probably against you.
Once a person hits Send, a message is available for anyone to find (assuming he isn’t using the privacy settings). A user can erase a message, but hundreds of people might have already seen it. And one of the power- and news-hungry users might “retweet,” or repeat, the message to hundreds of others before it’s eliminated — a problem if the message is a company secret.
One such example of the dangers of instant communication occurred on March 19, when General Electric held an extensive session with market analysts to explain its GE Capital assets that was carried live on the Internet. Unfortunately, someone at the meeting revealed nonpublic data about Lowe’s Companies credit card sales. All it took was one listener to convey that information over a social media tool such as Twitter for who knows how many people to learn the information.
On Lowe’s website you’ll discover a press release issued later that day that cites misleading numbers in the divulged figures — a wise move but one that would have been unnecessary provided someone knew how to keep nonpublic information private.
This is one reason why I love Twitter. It’s raw, it’s immediate and for the most part it’s uncensored. But it also can be dangerous, especially for companies that employ Twitter users who have lots of ego and little sense.

Linda Goin is a free-lance writer who focuses on personal finance and visual communications. She completed her college career this year with a graduate degree in American history at age 50.

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