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Introduction to Social Media: Privacy and copyright

These pages are intended to support academic staff interested in the use of social media to develop a professional online research presence and consider the issues inherent in working in such an open manner online.

Professional reputation

Remember that for many people, their first contact with you as an academic may be via your Twitter account or blog. Think about the impression you want them to talk away!

It is very easy to hide behind the relative anonymity of the internet, and perhaps be ruder, more outrageous or controversial than you may otherwise be in reality. Try and respond to any question or comment as you would in a face-to-face conversation. If you must make a joke or use sarcasm, use emoticons such as ;) for a wink or :) for a smile to indicate your tone. But remember it is very easy for words to be misconstrued when it is merely text on a screen!

Avoid getting in public arguments, particularly with well-known figures in your field. Academia can be a small world, and you'd be amazed how quickly word can spread. If you do get into a disagreement, remain courteous and perhaps consider using a private 'back channel' like email or private message to further the conversation.

Copyright

It is important to remember that posting or uploading anything to the internet counts as publishing. Just as you would not publish someone else’s journal article or photographs in a book without their permission, the same applies to the internet. Even if you are only communicating via social media with one or two individuals, remember that whatever you post is public and the world can see it!

Many of these social media sites have no copyright filter, so they will not necessarily prevent you from uploading copyrighted content. If a claim is made against something you have uploaded, the site will most often remove the content and sometimes suspend your account. Under the licence you agreed to when registering for an account, you are liable for anything you upload, not the website.

Remember, just because something is easy to do, that doesn’t make it legal. The internet has made the redistribution of copyrighted material very simple, and it is easy to fall into the trap of ‘everyone else is doing it, so it must be okay’. Don't retweet or reblog anything that contains copyrighted material or links to it; you are just as liable for sharing it as the person who originally uploaded it.

Think about what you want to share before doing so – if you didn’t create it or you don’t have permission, whether granted specifically to you or granted openly via a copyright statement or open licence, don’t share it! Linking to material on another site or wherever you found it is always better than uploading it yourself.

Liability

It is very easy when communicating with friends or colleagues via social media to forget that you are in effect conducting a public conversation. It is the equivalent of standing in the middle of a crowd room talking loudly! The whole world can read your posts or tweets.

Be very careful about what you say about named individuals; people can and have been sued or prosecuted for broadcasting false, abusive or prejudicial comments. One example is the student who was sent to jail for making racist comments about the footballer Fabrice Muamba when the latter had a heart attack on the pitch. A member of the public saw his tweets and complained to the police; remember anyone can make a similar complaint, it doesn't need to be the person being talked about!

Privacy

Many social media sites can be locked down or restricted to approved users only - so no posts, tweets etc are visible to public view.

However, if you are intending to use social media to advance your research presence online, it is not really advisable to restrict access in this way. The whole point is to be open and accessible and reach as wide an audience in your field as possible! You may have to strike a balance between protecting your privacy and reaching and communicating with your chosen audience.

If you find yourself censoring yourself, perhaps consider two accounts - a personal one for your close friends and colleagues, where you can be a bit more relaxed and 'unprofessional', and a professional one where you are more focused on your research interests and developments in your social.

If you are using social media for professional purposes, it is advisable not to reveal too much personal information. You will need to use your real name in order to establish your identity and authenticity, but more than this is not necessary. Never reveal personal information such as dates of birth, addresses, telephone numbers or anything that could be used as a means of identity fraud.

Your rights

It is always important to read the terms and conditions of any social media site before registering for an account. In most cases you will retain the copyright to anything that you create or post using the social media site; however, almost all of these sites have a clause that states that you are granting them a world-wide, non-exclusive, royalty-free licence (often with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, adapt, process, distribute, publish etc.

In effect, this means that you continue to own your content, but that Facebook (or Twitter or LinkedIn or any of the others) have the right to use your material in any way they see fit, without paying you or even asking your permission!

The simple answer to avoiding finding your material appropriated and shared without your permission on social media is don’t put it up there in the first place. You can discuss research, opinions, material etc. without sharing it; and if you do wish to provide material to someone else via the internet, there are private file-sharing or cloud-hosting services you can use.

If you do wish to share something via social media, be sure to put a clear copyright statement on it. This may not protect you from your material being appropriated, but it does mean that those using it cannot plead ignorance, and it will be easier for you to request your material be removed from whichever site is hosting it.