Friday, March 13, 2009

Twitter and it's data free for all....

The rise of Twitter
Twitter is expanding and expanding fast. A flurry of news coverage and hype about the product, particularly in the last 3 months, has seen users flock to the service. Twitter is seen to offer enormous potential, information can be filtered by content, location, keyword etc., opening up the realms of how data is used online in real time. This is in tandem with the numerous benefits of openness discussed below. However, Twitter still has some way to go. It has yet to come to terms with its own potential and how those possibilities should be steered and constrained. The service recently made some small developments to its site, with a 'trend' and 'search' facility added. However, the sophistication of its privacy and account settings is still limited. Thus, it has yet to put more control back in users hand, with regard to how their data is used and by whom. At present, it is an all or nothing affair, you're "open" or you're "private"!!. This begs the following questions, should account holders have more control over their data? If so, why should this be the case? Is openness itself constraining what people will say? Finally, If users have more control, will this stifle the success of the service?

Why openness?
The Twitter model is built largely around individuals posting short 140 character status updates, replies or retweets on any range of topic imaginable. Individuals can find and follow any other user on the service, ranging from friends to common interests, to celebrities etc. The great thing about twitter is its 'openness'. Most individuals choose to keep their profile public to ensure that they can be found by like-minded individuals, or that ongoing conversations can be picked up by interested parties etc. It means individuals have that feeling that someone out there is listening, even if it is just the possibility of feeling part of something. It is a forum for expression of the mind, even if expression is mundane. It is also a means to 'contribute' one's time, knowledge and experience and is thus an avenue of 'meaning' for individuals.

Openness ensures that those with something to offer others can more easily be heard. It engenders the possibility for more connection, collaboration, relationship and even community formation 'without' boundaries. By focusing on the content of messages and less on the full personality, it provides a different kind of social formation. The loud, influential and dominant personality may not make for interesting dialogue. Too many annoying tweets from a user and one can easily unfollow with the click of the mouse. This levels the playing field for users in many respects, as well as increasing the possibility of connection based on interest and not by persuasion. However, not everyone wishes for this openness. There is the option to set your profile 'private' in order to close your information to only those with whom you've allowed follow you.

Interpreting your past online
Full openness has its price though, Twitter first launched in March 2006, and since then, an archive of user data has slowly being amounting for all to access. Hundreds of your messages may (or may not) be carefully vetted by you, but one thoughtless twitter update may be enough to get you in to trouble at any point in the future. This may be nothing more than friends misinterpreting and taking offence to an update. But it could be something more: Recently a US cop had his status updates on Facebook and Myspace used as evidence against him in a gun trial on grounds of the accused acquittal. What was interesting about this case is how status updates became utilised and crucially 'interpreted' by the Jury. This highlights how information may be interpreted and placed into multiple contexts by whoever reads the information. Employers, even potential collaborators, may selectively choose just one suspect twitter update among hundreds as 'proof' of character, or misintrepret one's online ego as holistically representative of the individual. Twitter means your online past and identity will always be there online, waiting to be interpreted and analysed.

Analyse this!
You may think that with hundreds of recorded messages, it would be uncumbersome for anyone to want to thrall through your past data. But with twitter, software by third parties is springing up to offer just that: Twitter analyzer is just one of the free online applications available that allows you to analyse the data of "any" twitter user with an open account (hence the majority of twitter user). The bounds of what can be achieved with Twitter analyzer is limited. But it opens numerous possibilities. For beyond harmless apps like Twitscoop, which scrape status updates in order to form twitter 'trending topics' and 'buzz words', your data can be analysed in isolation or in tandem with others, in any number of ways, for any number of purposes, and by ANYONE. Twitter apps may emerge (if they don't already exist) to 'profile' individuals; to elucidate personality, truth and inconsistency, track record, literacy, interests etc. etc. etc. This is alongside the likely emergence of targeted advertising etc, and data mining of information, in order to make twitter a viable business model.

Openness on whose terms?
At present twitter has a very lax attitude to its data. If you have your profile public, your data is a free for all. If it's private, its between you, your vetted followers and twitter. This means that Twitter's so called openness may not be so open. People are constantly vetting and reflecting on what information they post on twitter. They may do it out of shyness, cautiousness, personal branding, or foresight etc. Twitter is open for many, but not too open. It's very openness curtails what dialogue does occur online. As users become aware of the ways in which their data can be used, this may further curtail individual expression. Thus, should Twitter not increase the range of choices with regard 'openness' and 'privacy'. What I would like to see is the possibility of users having the choice to make private their archive of data. For instance, what if only your recent updates were set as public? What if twitter made it difficult for those updates to be scraped by third party offerings? What if you could make replies only visible to who you follow? What if you could automatically make messages with certain 'keywords' private? What if you could make certain messages time sensitive and private after a certain period? What if you could make some status updates private to yourself? Thus, the bounds of privacy can be opened up. Will it constrain the services success however? I do not believe so, if too much openness is stifling expression and conversation on twitter, than increasing the scope of openness versus privacy, and doing it in an uncumbersome way; would perhaps increase use of the service. This choice may be the business model Twitter hopes for...

Copyright © 2009 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.


Dave said...

"what if only your recent updates were set as public?"

I like the idea but from a technical standpoint this would be impossible, If something is posted on the web then it is there forever. That's the nature of the web, you've got to expect that everything is going to be cached or archived.

Also, If twitter did this then third party apps would pop up in no time offering access to twitterers archives.

"What if twitter made it difficult for those updates to be scraped by third party offerings?"

Hmmm, how would they do that?

"What if you could make replies only visible to who you follow?"

Twitter kind of does this at the moment, if I @reply to somebody then (by default) you will only see it if you also follow that person too. The feature can be turned off though as it is designed for utility rather than privacy.

Kinda related… I like the idea of having different groups of people your following (family, friends from school, friends from work, casual acquaintances etc..) and sending tweets only to that group.

Although… I do think that twitters beauty lies very much in its simplicity so I'm not even sure if I want groups on twitter.

"if too much openness is stifling expression and conversation on twitter, than increasing the scope of openness versus privacy, and doing it in an uncumbersome way; would perhaps increase use of the service."

I'm broadly in agreement with this sentiment. I would love to have a private flag that I can set on every tweet, so that only those I follow can see the tweet. Maybe a prefix "p" before all messages that you wish to make private ("p This is a private message") similiar to the direct messaging prefix ("d glockyboots This is a direct message").

"What if you could automatically make messages with certain 'keywords' private?"

Do you mean user-defined keywords? Sounds a bit complicated. Why not just have the option of making each message private instead of relying on keywords?

Dave said...

I enjoyed the post though, some good ideas in there :)

shane mc loughlin said...

Great points dave, gots me thinking!!

Regarding archiving of content: This is a huge issue at the moment, search engines like google and services like currently cache content etc. However, the important thing is that ICT's are tools. They are also Socio-technical systems imbued with socio-cultural-political-economic biases. If we are to make the web work as a tool for people rather than people becoming the tools of their tools, then we need to ask, 'how do we want the web to work for us?'. Thus, I don't think it's accceptable to stop at "from a technical standpoint, this is impossible". Who controls the future of the web?....
Thus, with regard to archiving of content, there is no reason why an agreed upon code of practice isn't in place regarding what gets archived and what doesn't! Beyond this, there is no reason why supra-national policies aren't put in place to ensure a web that works best for people. Thus, why should it be impossible for me to flag my data requesting that it not be archived? Why should policy not be in place putting more control in users hands?

Sure, third party companies can still scrape that data, but what if it became a black-market affair? At least, I would have some assurance that every Tom, Dick and Harry hadn't easy access to it and able to carry out statistical analysis on it. It doesnt seem good enough to say that any data once public on the web (even for a brief period), forever becomes public on the web!

With regard to "What if you could make replies only visible to who you follow". I guess I should clarify that I meant private, not just visible. So, as you said, being able to set up private group conversations by using 'P' or having all replies set to private by default would be great!

Finally, the other thing I thought would be great, is if you could send tweets like personal notes! So, it wouldn't necessarily be a private message. It could start with something like PN meaning 'private note' etc.

shane mc loughlin said...

Hmm, just thinking though, doe's allowing users to have certain group conversations, put back up those boundaries of exclusion that twitter has gone some way to taking down?? Probably!!

Dave said...

On the archiving of content, there is currently something called robots.txt which will tell search engines not to crawl or index the page. Google and the other big search engines will abide by the instructions in robots.txt.

I would be against any regulation or law enforcing the robots.txt rule though. I think it would be unenforceable anyway (on a global scale not necessarily a national scale) and if something is unenforceable then why make it law? It might be useful as a utility function but users need to understand that the information wont really disappear. The solution (in my opinion) is to educate the user and make sure that they understand that if they put something on the internet then it's going to be there forever. If you're not comfortable with that then don't put it out there.

Bottom line for twitterers: Don't tweet in anger, don't tweet when drunk, don't tweet something that you wouldn't say to your mother, don't tweet sensitive information!