Writers’ Room 101: Tweet Responsibly, My Friends

True story: once upon a time, there was a television writer. Let’s call him “Joe.”

Joe was gainfully employed by a TV series (yay!) that, unfortunately, had a showrunner who didn’t mind working ungodly-long hours from time to time (boo!).

These things happen. You won’t always be home in time for dinner. You’ll have to just accept this as an occupational hazard.

Anyway, let’s get back to Joe. So one night, while working one of these super-late writing sessions, Joe checks the time and sees that it’s a little past midnight. The writers’ room still hadn’t adjourned for the day, and even though all the writers were mentally exhausted and feeling understandably cranky, there was no indication they were going to stop working anytime soon. You see, it was getting close to the end of the season, and a script for Joe’s show needed an emergency rewrite, and the showrunner wasn’t letting anyone go home until it was finished to her satisfaction.

In a moment of boredom and/or frustration, Joe logged onto his Facebook page and updated his status to something like, “Can you guys believe it’s after midnight, and we’re STILL IN THE ROOM?” Joe got a few “likes” and some funny responses from his friends in the comments section, the script for Joe’s show was eventually completed, and everyone went home.

End of story.

Oh…except for the part where Joe got fired a few days later.

Technically, Joe’s agent was informed that when the show returned the next season, Joe wouldn’t be asked back. The difference is minor, and it’s mostly semantics.

If I had to guess, I’d say it’s highly unlikely that the showrunner called Joe’s agent and said, “I’m firing your client because he talked shit about his job on Facebook.” Chances are, the reason given for Joe’s termination was probably more along the lines of, “Joe’s just not working out” or “I don’t think Joe’s a good fit for the room.” They like to give incredibly vague reasons like that because they’re totally opinion-based and therefore impossible to refute. Anyway, whatever the explanation Joe’s agent got, there was no doubt in the minds of the rest of the staff that his social media complaint about his working conditions somehow got back to his boss and the boss took offense, as you’d have to expect most bosses would.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that Joe was let go for reasons totally unrelated to that Facebook comment. But the timing was more than a little suspect, especially considering that Joe hadn’t been told of any problems with his job performance prior to this, and fully expected to have his position waiting for him in the season to come.

If you ask around, there are probably tons of stories similar to this one, and not just in Hollywood, but in all walks of life. No matter how internet-savvy we think people are in 2014, it seems that many still haven’t gotten the message that what we post online isn’t 100% private.

But here’s why TV writers in particular need to be careful: this industry is wildy ego-driven, and even a perceived slight to your boss or network can have you at parties saying, “Who, me? Oh, I’m between jobs right now” before you even know what hit you.

And it doesn’t matter if your Facebook page is private, your tweets are protected, you blog under a pseudonym, or whatever privacy safeguards you’ve put in place. You should always…always…ALWAYS assume that the things you post online at least have the potential to get traced back to you. And if you’ve heaped scorn on your employer, even in passing, don’t be surprised if there are swift repercussions.

To make this more specific, I’ll use myself as an example. And I’m not insisting that you should all do what I do, just take it as food for thought.

I tweet pretty regularly. I like it. It’s fun. I sometimes even use it as a way to “think out loud” while analyzing what works and doesn’t work about a TV show or movie I’m watching. But, through absolutely no effort of mine, I’ve seen my tweets pop up in places like The Huffington Post, The Hollywood Reporter, even ESPN. and that’s all without me going out of my way to say outrageous things to garner attention. Many of you have probably seen your own tweets get re-posted to other sites; maybe you tweeted something particularly witty, or insightful, or profound. Maybe you said something snarky about a TV show, a movie you saw, or a celebrity, and that comment got much more attention than you were expecting (conversely, maybe that was your plan all along…I’m not judging).

The point is this: in my early fumblings with social media, I was pretty unguarded and willing to say whatever funny things that came to mind just because I considered them harmless, snarky observations. And it’s kinda cool to see some random thought of mine get retweeted, or favorited, or appear on some totally unrelated website. But one day a few years ago, I tweeted something kinda rude about a movie that had just opened, and I used the movie’s title as the hashtag. It got a handful of retweets, but then I noticed that the star of the film was also on Twitter, and they were responding to people who we’re tweeting kind, supportive things about their movie under the same hashtag. And I had to assume that there was a chance, however slim, this actor saw my tweet as well. So I’d taken a cheap shot at someone’s hard work and all they were trying to do is promote their film and make a buck. And that made me feel like a dick.

That’s when I decided to change my social media approach. Ever since that day, it’s been governed by this one rule: especially when it comes to Hollywood, I never say anything on Twitter (and by extension, Facebook or any other corner of the web) that I wouldn’t say to that actor, director, or network executive’s face. I might still criticize every now and then, but I stop and ask myself — every time — if I had to look the target of my tweet in the eye and defend it, could I? And you’d be surprised how many comedic gems (#humblebrag) I’ve typed out on my phone, let my thumb hover over the “Send” button, and then deleted because they didn’t pass that simple test.

To be clear, this isn’t about simply avoiding hurting strangers’ feelings (although shouldn’t that be reason enough not to do it?). It’s about the impact that what you put online might have on your employability. Because as your writing career blossoms — as I hope it will — who’s to say you’ll never cross paths with the target of your snark? Who’s to say you’ll never be in the running to work with (or for!) them? And like I said earlier, if you’ve stepped on someone’s toes, they’ll almost never tell you the real reason they now hate you. So, did you really not get that meeting at NBC because they didn’t respond to your script…or because you talked smack about their fall schedule on Twitter and some random person at the network saw it?

Maybe you’re a badass-enough writer that you can say whatever you want online and never face any repercussions. If that’s the case, bravo. I salute you. But for the rest of us mere mortals, it’s entirely possible to tweet or Facebook your way out of a job. It’s happened to people before, and it’ll doubtlessly happen again. Don’t let it happen to you.

Tweet responsibly, my friends.

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