Twitter Tips: What They Mean By 'Tweeting At' Someone?

Emergency "Twitter was down so I wrote my...
Emergency "Twitter was down so I wrote my tweet on paper and photographed it and posted on flickr" : Satire on internet culture (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Twitter can be an odd medium for communicating. Is it a broadcast medium where one says what one wants and ignores what everyone else is saying, an interactive medium where conversation and debate occur, or some combination of both? Anyone can talk to anyone, regardless of who is following who. And yet, attempting to communicate with someone who is not following you, sometimes labeled "tweeting at me," may be a risky proposition. In fact, attempting to communicate with someone who is not following you is sometimes perceived as harassment by the recipient. Is it any wonder that Twitter has been the place where the conflict surrounding Freethought Blogs/Skepchick/Atheism+ has been most evident?

In this post, I'd like to offer a few suggestions for navigating this mess on Twitter. I have found these tips useful in practice, but feel free to take them or leave them, as your situation may differ from mine.

Before we get to the tips, it is important to understand exactly what we are talking about. If I tweet without including anyone's Twitter handle (@username), anyone who is following me may see it. Nobody who is not following me will see it unless they go out of their way to look for it or someone who is following me and who they are following retweets it. On the other hand, if I do include the Twitter handle of someone who is not following me in my tweet, this person will see my tweet.

With that out of the way, here are my suggestions:
  1. If you "tweet at" someone (i.e., use their Twitter handle in a tweet), and they ask you not to communicate with them ever again, consider respecting their wishes unless you have a compelling reason not to (e.g., they continue to "tweet at" you after asking you not to communicate with them). You might unfollow and/or block them so you will not be tempted to communicate with them again.
  2. If someone "tweets at" you and you would rather not hear from this person ever again, politely make this request and realize that nobody is obligated to respect it.
  3. Recognize that many of us try to use Twitter as a communication medium and that if you tweet something interesting or controversial, we may respond. If you cannot handle this, consider making your Twitter account private.
  4. Labeling an attempt to communicate with you as "harassment" is a real stretch unless the content of the message is harassing in nature. Imagine if I called the police and said that I just received a harassing phone call and then went on to explain that the caller had merely asked whether I was satisfied with my cell phone carrier. I might not want to be contacted by random telemarketers, but it is hardly harassment.
  5. What goes around often comes around, and this is especially true when it comes to Twitter. If you regularly insult people, the odds that someone will insult you increase considerably.
  6. Criticism of someone's ideas is NOT harassment. Calling it harassment undermines your credibility and minimizes the seriousness of real harassment.
  7. If you have been accused of harassment on Twitter and know that you have not been harassing anyone, take a deep breath before responding. Ask yourself whether you are being baited or if you might be interacting with someone who sees harassment everywhere. I know it can be tough, but try not to take it personally. The person accusing you may not be well.
I really enjoy Twitter. I enjoy it the most when people talk to each other and refrain from the silly name calling. I also recognize that I have no control over the behavior of others. I can say my piece, but that's about it. The best tip I can provide when it comes to bad behavior on Twitter is not to take it personally. It says far more about the person behaving badly than it does anyone else.