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Content creators on Twitter* can hook up their professional and private identities, strike a neutral or waspish tone, or give themselves the go-ahead to criticise the company they work for… But how comfortable are they doing these things? How can they sound the right note and find a happy medium when tweeting? A research project led by Patrick Lê of NEOMA, based on questions put to a selection of French journalists who are regular Twitter users, in collaboration with a researcher from Erasmus University.

* The research was carried out before Twitter became X in July 2023.

The researchers put the focus on journalists because they were among the first to use Twitter in 2010 to keep up with the latest news. They opened their accounts on their own initiative without asking their employers, and would decide for themselves how to use it: whether to tweet or not, to post as journalists or to juxtapose their professional and private identities.

Many of these journalists have become prolific and eclectic content creators over the intervening period. They are comfortable repeat-tweeting about current events, posting political or socially-aware comments, or sharing personal information about their favourite pastimes and hobbies… all of which convinced the researchers to devote a major study to them. The scientists analysed tens of thousands of tweets posted by French journalists, followed their accounts closely during important events, and undertook qualitative interviews with 67 of them.

A game that’s fun… but that also requires vigilance

The study is intended for anyone who voices their opinion in their own name on social networks by posting professional and private content on the same account. The main takeaway? These users get something of a kick out of playing this chameleon game. Why? Because they’re at liberty to take part, exert a great deal of autonomy and can wind things up at any time.

But the downside to all this fun is that journalists need to keep their eyes open. They have to find the right balance between spontaneity and caution, between speaking freely and the constraints of the job. Some members of the profession who have lost sight of this have experienced violent backlashes; the only way to avoid this scenario is to experiment, and to learn by trial and error.

“Being a journalist and more-or-less yourself at the same time”

These information professionals who are active on Twitter enjoy being “journalists and more-or-less themselves at the same time”. They welcome the brevity, spontaneity and easy-going tone of tweets, as well as the freedom to choose when and how often they post.

Twitter releases journalists from professional practices such as proofreading by their superiors before publishing or tailoring the message to their readership. They talk about their favourite subjects, and their community of followers is built around these themes.

Humour, irony, satire and criticism

Tweeting gives journalists licence to reveal their true selves: the factual and neutral tone typical of their profession makes way for humour, irony, satire and outspoken criticism. Here are two examples from the infamous Cahuzac** affair, which erupted in France in 2012: “They wanted us to shed tears over the Budget Minister? Didn’t work”, and, “Self-flagellation was the only thing missing from this act of contrition”.***

These tweets, which are very open but tie in closely with current events, co-exist with others that discuss the private lives of the sender: going on a museum visit or to a sporting event, or talking about good food, their taste in music or what they’re reading… The journalists relish the “lighter side” to this mix of genres, when they’re not reduced to their professional identity alone and feel more “human”.

Dual identity: a balancing act

On occasion the journalists put a distance between themselves and their employer. Some recommend articles published by rival outlets, while others discuss topics that have been overlooked or avoided by their own newspapers or magazines. Presenting themselves as members of a newsroom gives them credibility; tweeting with a certain degree of freedom demonstrates their independence.

Pulling off this dual identity is sometimes a difficult balance, as can be seen in the disclaimers appended to some Twitter accounts, when the journalist’s profile states that they write for a well-known paper but explains: “I tweet under my own name”. Or they might repeat the same words and add, “at least that’s how it seems”. This ambiguity attracts criticism from colleagues: it’s hypocritical, blatantly contradictory, a distinction too subtle for readers to understand, and so forth.

A long learning process involving trial and error

Last but not least, journalists sometimes have difficulty squaring the freedom to say what they want with the discretion that comes with their status. Can they tweet holiday snaps or give details about where they spend their vacation? To what extent can they voice a personal opinion while remaining professional? Can they criticise an article published by their own outlet, and – if so – in what terms? How can they set their own limits?

The learning process for everybody involves trial and error, and it’s a lesson that takes time. The journalists are sometimes obliged to delete a ham-fisted tweet, weather the storm unleashed by an unfortunate turn of phrase, or acknowledge the gap between intention and interpretation… all episodes that are of no consequence most of the time. And yet, we all remember cases where journalists have been viciously attacked or even fired after a single tweet.

Autonomy: a sine qua non for a sense of ease

The researchers call this dual identity chosen by the journalists “liminoid”: their autonomy leaves them feeling comfortable and makes tweeting fun, and this easily outweighs the risks. Lê and his fellow researcher contrasted this situation with the phenomenon known as “liminality”, where an individual exists between two identities without choosing to do so, and finds themselves in dire straits: the work colleague who is transferred far from their base, for example, or the employee from a modest background who is promoted to the role of manager, or the refugee who arrives in a host country deprived of any status.

This study is recommended not just for journalists but also for companies that are keen for their employees to have their say on social networks, but are afraid that things might get out of hand. The researchers also suggest that employees should be given training and advice, but without overly-strict guidance: it is the feeling of being autonomous that makes people want to sign up.

** Jérôme Cahuzac is a former French Budget Minister who was forced to step down when Médiapart disclosed that he held secret bank accounts in Switzerland and Singapore.

*** This tweet has been slightly reworded to preserve the anonymity of the journalists interviewed 

Find out more

  1. L. Lê and M. W. Lander, Enjoying the Betwixt and Between: Liminoid identity construction on Twitter, Organisation Studies, 44(9), 2023. https://doi.org/10.1177/01708406231166808