“Twitter invites casualness, yet it demands extra care.” — Science writer Carl Zimmer.

Yesterday I made a serious error on Twitter. Here is what happened. 

TechCrunch ran this story: AOL Asks Us If We Can Tone It Down. It said that a writer for TechCrunch, owned by AOL, had gotten an email from someone at Moviefone, also owned by AOL, asking for changes to a review of a movie that ran at TechCrunch. The writer for TechCrunch, Alexia Tsotsis, included the email in her post, leaving out the name of the person who had sent it. I saw the TechCrunch piece in the afternoon, and I wanted to send it out over Twitter, but I also wanted to say something about why this little incident was vexing to AOL. It took me a few hours to figure out a way to do that. Around 4:20 pm I posted this:

Techcrunch: AOL Asks Us If We Can Tone It Down.  Problem for AOL is the Moviephone guy doesn’t know he did anything wrong.

So far so good. Well, almost. I didn’t actually know whether the Moviefone person was a guy. And I misspelled Moviefone. These were like little warm-up errors for what came next. 

A few hours later I was making dinner for my kids. They were doing their homework. While I waited for the meal to cook I was glancing at my laptop, and on Mediagazer I saw this post from film writer Scott Weinberg, whom I do not know.

Effective immediately, I no longer work for @. Here’s why:  I will always love @.

Wow, I thought to myself. The story is a few hours old and he’s already gone! AOL must be serious about creating a cultural divide between editorial and promotion. Just before serving dinner, I posted this to Twitter:

Looks like that Moviephone guy who told Techcrunch to tone it down is already gone from the company. 

Looking at it now, I recognize that I put “looks like” in there because in fact I wasn’t sure of the causality. What I should have done is ask myself: well, Jay, what is the connection between Scott Weinberg leaving Moviefone and the Tech Crunch story he linked to? Do you even know? This I did not do. Instead I served dinner and watched a documentary on Nile River crocodiles with my kids. Big mistake. Because I didn’t see this when it went up:

Scott Weinberg
@ This is factually inaccurate. Please don’t assume such things.
And I also missed this from the TechCrunch writer when it was posted: 

Alexia Tsotsis
@ @ Without being able to say much more, @ didn’t send the email in my post.

Which is definitive proof that I was wrong. I also hadn’t seen that Jeff Jarvis (65,000 followers) and Henry Blodget (27,000), among others, had passed along my erroneous, “Looks like that Moviephone guy is gone” post. My screw-up spread a lot faster because of that.

All this became clear to me when I sat down at my computer more than an hour after posting the misbegotten Tweet. There were people denouncing me for drawing an incorrect conclusion, and mocking me for claiming to be a journalism professor but failing accuracy 101. And they were right. So I set about correcting myself, first to my subscribers, then to Henry Blodget, Alexia Tsotsis and Scott Weinberg, to whom I apoolgized. You can see that flurry of correctives here. (Thanks to Philip Aittkin for collecting them.) 

A few reflections: This was the most serious error I have made in 15,000 Twitter posts. I’ve screwed up before, of course, usually by passing along something I should have been more skeptical of, or by making a factual error in a statement I should have checked. This was different. It involved a person’s reputation and a false charge. And I was the originator of an error that others were passing along. Lucky for me, Scott Weinberg graciously accepted my apology (thanks, Scott!) while Blodget, Jarvis and others quickly noted the correction. Repairs were made within an hour or two, but still: it should not have happened.

My mistakes: Doing more than one thing at once. Moving far too quickly from an inference to an assertion. Failing to fact check myself. Failing to ask in the first place: what do you actually know, Rosen? Usually, I write a Twitter post and let it set for a while, even if I’ve checked it and it’s perfect. Here, I didn’t do that.

Perhaps another, less conscious factor was involved: the urge for quick narrative resolution, as in: “Wow, he’s gone already? That was quick!” I definitely remember thinking that a fast resignation or firing would make the story more interesting to Twitter subscribers who had read the first link. In this sense I wanted it to be true. Which is what people mean when they call a story “too good to check.”

Another little lesson: most of the time I benefit from being a professor of the subject I Tweet about, and from having NYU in my handle on Twitter. But if you seriously screw-up, those advantages flip around and make the mistake worse. 

This whole story was a bit snakebitten. Tech Crunch had to back off from its headline the next day because it too was wrong. (Which I also should have noticed.) AOL hadn’t asked TechCrunch to tone it down. Moviefone had. “I kinda feel like we owe AOL an apology,” wrote Paul Carr. “Moviefone is no more a representative of AOL Corp than we are. As such, the headline could just as accurately have read “Moviefone asks AOL to tone it down.”