I want to share a rather curious exchange I had recently that evolved into a discussion on Twitter etiquette.

This May, I helped manage an annual conference at my company that brings together over 100 digital communicators from across the country to discuss topics related to the online world, such as content strategy, user experience, and social media. We decided to stand up a unique Twitter account this year to allow attendees, both in-person at the event and those tuning in remotely, to stay connected, share their thoughts, and let us know how we were doing. On the second day, I noticed a negative post by one of our attendees about our speakers. I wanted to do right by the comment, so I responded to them publicly from our event account, acknowledging their dissatisfaction and encouraging them to complete our conference survey so we’d know how to do better next time.

Within a few hours, I received an instant message from them asking me to never talk to them publicly and instead use direct messages. I was a bit confused by the request and its tone, as their feed was public. When I mentioned this, the attendee said they didn’t want that comment to be read by us. “Why post then?” I asked. “It’s for my friends only,” they replied. After asking me again not to respond to them in public, I repeated my offer of completing our feedback form and opted to end the conversation.

I sat there for a moment and thought, this is absurd. Why was this person getting offended that I responded to a public tweet they made, especially when, in my opinion, the response was handled in a professional manner? After thinking over the situation for a few days, I determined that the attendee hadn’t wanted their co-workers to know about their Twitter account. I had unintentionally “outed” them to anyone who was following the event feed.

So how did I find the complaint? During the event, I had noticed a reply to the attendee from one of our speakers, responding to a compliment given to them by this person. Curious to know what was said, I looked over the attendee’s feed, and that’s where I spotted it, a few posts down in their timeline. Now, this person said they didn’t want their comment to be read, and they did a good job not making it obvious. They didn’t mention our feed or use the unique hashtag we established, so it wouldn’t have shown up in our monitoring. I only discovered it because the speaker used our event hashtag in their reply and included the attendee’s handle.

I was pretty certain I had done nothing out of line, but the conversation was still nagging me a bit, so I did what any self-respecting twitternaut would do and crowdsourced a question: did I break an unnamed rule of Twitter etiquette? One of my followers said that there’s a fine line when replying to public posts, as it could be similar to someone randomly walking up to you on the street and commenting on a conversation you were having with a friend. When I elaborated that I was replying to a complaint, they replied that, in that instance, the response was probably appropriate. Another follower said “public is public” and I was not in the wrong. A third follower’s comment, which was my favorite, said that I “shattered the illusion that [the person] wasn’t talking to the entire world”.

After digesting these thoughts, here’s my conclusion: it’s all about intention.

Let’s use the person on the street analogy my follower suggested. When you’re in that sort of situation, you’re not intending the random bystander to be involved in your conversation, so if they suddenly come up to you and chime in, it becomes a violation of your privacy and it pretty unnerving as a result. With Twitter, however, if you make your timeline public, you’re pretty much intending to speak to whoever happens to be listening; that’s the whole point. Don’t be surprised to get a reply or a comment from someone whenever you tweet. Because their criticism of our event was made bare for all to see, the irked attendee shouldn’t have been irked at all. It doesn’t matter that they didn’t flag the post so it wouldn’t be obvious to find. It was public, so it was fair game.

So, what do you think? Did I cross a line and break an etiquette rule, or was I justified in my actions? I’d love to hear what others could add to the conversation.

Update (5-17-10): Two things I wanted to add: First, in order better balance the article, I decided to strike out two bits I felt strayed into “weasel word” territory. Second, I neglected to mention that the attendee promptly made their Twitter account private following our instant message exchange.