Opinion: Twitter, Trams And Tech Stupidity

The Melbourne Tram driver sacked for his tweets — which reportedly included taking pics of sleeping passengers and taunting others — brings the issues of social networking in the workplace to the fore.

[Image Credit: Ozzmosis] A couple of quick admissions here: I don’t live in Melbourne (but I quite like the place) and though recent, the events in this particular tale are, by now, done and dusted. The basics of the tale: Andy Blume a (now ex-)Melbourne tram driver, was said to have posted a number of offensive blog items and twitpics about his tram driving jobs, including pictures of accidents. Melbourne's The Herald Sun published a number of articles calling for something to be done, and eventually Blume was sacked.

The reporting on this is necessarily a bit one-sided at this point; Blume appears to have deleted his blog, and his twitter feed (if I’ve found the right account) is protected, so it’s hard to see the entirety of his side of the argument. There’s some anecdotal stuff out there that claims to republish some of his tweets; if they’re accurate (it's claimed he refers to himself as twitter's "most lovable sex offender", for example) he’s hardly the most polite of gentlemen, and could probably do with learning that harsh language is most striking when used sparingly. Neither of those things are necessarily sacking offences per se. I’d be perfectly happy to hear from Mr Blume (as long as things are kept civil) to get his side of things, for whatever that’s worth. Some of the issues surrounding the story are just the stuff of talkback radio; what interests me specifically is the technology in use, and its implications.

What’s not entirely clear from any reports is whether Blume was tweeting “live” while driving; he appears to have taken photos while driving at the very least. Without clarification I’m going to err on the side of sanity and suggest that he wasn’t, otherwise there’s a clear public safety issue at play here, just as there was with the tech-obsessed taxi driver we looked at recently. Technological stupidity, in other words.

At the same time, the broader issue — and it’s one that has come up time and time again in recent years — is where the line between private thought and public work comes into play, and whether an employer has a right to control what an employee says in their own time. Again, I’m assuming his tweets and blog posts were done off the clock here; if they’re on company time it’s another story entirely.

The Net has broadened the spectrum of communication in ways that were unthinkable twenty years ago. Twenty years ago, I’m sure tram drivers (and many others from all walks of life) gathered at the pub to complain about dud customers, bad drivers… whatever.

The thing about Twitter (or a blog, Facebook posting, or any other “social” service you’d care to name) is that it’s not as narrowcast as a chat to your mate down the pub. Online rarely forgets, never forgives and is for the most part very searchable and pretty darned obvious. Even with services that you might think of as protected, such as Facebook, a quick change to privacy policies, or a re-post of your own comments by a third party can lead to a comment spreading far and wide.

Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but I’d strongly argue that it’s idiocy to slag off your employer and/or their customers on any kind of broadcast medium. It’s the difference between leaning across to your co-worker to whisper about that funny smell that Gladys in accounts gives off, or shouting through a megaphone across the entire office that she reeks like the inside of a dead yak’s unmentionables. One might be an unkind private joke; the other’s clearly harassment.

To throw a personal angle in here, while I’m guest editing Gizmodo, I also work as a freelance journalist for around a dozen publications with slightly different, often overlapping audiences. That means I’ve got to wear around a dozen different hats, keep track of a dozen different audience wants and needs, and deal with a dozen different sets of office politics. They’re all interesting workplaces with elements that I really like — and some things I’m not so keen on, be they people or the decisions that are sometimes made that don’t concur with my view of things.

I spend a fair amount of each day on social networks, but (if I'm feeling cranky) the amount you’ll hear me bitch and moan about those workplaces?

Zero.

It’s simply not an appropriate thing from a professional viewpoint to do so. I’m not that surprised that Blume’s blog is apparently gone; it’d be wise from a future employment perspective, but naturally, any search on his name — something that most employers will do as a matter of course these days — is likely to bring up the Herald Sun coverage, at the very least. I uncovered a number of critical blogs, a few supporter pages along the way as well, but if I were a busy HR representative looking to cull resumes down, the second Google result (currently "Yarra Trams driver Andy Blume sacked for offensive web postings...") would be all I’d need to send his resume to the circular file.

What do you think? Are folks unaware of the broadcast nature of social media? Should employers be able to put you on notice for what you do and say online?

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