Is Twitter like a crowded cafe where anyone might overhear your private conversation but repeating it would be bad manners? Or is it more like a ham radio, where the whole point is you never know who might be listening in?
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Tech pundits and social media theorists were groping for metaphors last week in a debate over when it’s acceptable for journalists to quote tweets by Twitter users who aren’t public figures in their articles. The controversy has been simmering for a while in certain corners of the blogosphere, but it boiled up after Buzzfeed published a story about sexual assault that featured embedded tweets from a number of rape victims, some of whom objected.
My own view is that Twitter is akin to a stadium during a professional sports game: We’re all there to watch the guys on the field, but you know there’s a chance you’ll end up on that Jumbotron, or maybe even on “SportsCenter.” Some fans paint their chests to attract the cameras, some get caught picking their noses and some folks seem to have either a a totally inexplicable sense of privacy or no shame whatsoever.
But who cares what I think? Or Anil Dash, or Jenna Wortham, or Hamilton Nolan, or anyone else who’s weighed in with an opinion? What matters far more is what Twitter itself thinks — the company, not the community. It’s Twitter, after all, that operates the cafe/airwaves/stadium/whatever metaphor you like.
If Twitter wished to, it could, say, introduce a privacy control that allows users to make their tweets unembeddable so that they couldn’t be republished by news sites (although reporters could still screenshot or quote them). It could stipulate in its rules that anyone wishing to quote a non-verified users’s tweet on a third-party website must ask for permission. It could, at a minimum, include a suggestion that journalists seek permission to quote in one of its best practices guides. That, at least, would bolster the case of those who think unapproved tweet-quoting is some kind of violation of trust.
Why hasn’t it done any of these things? Does Twitter have any official stance on the quoting of tweets and when permission ought to be obtained? I’ve been trying to put this question to someone there, sending multiple queries to Mark S. Luckie, Twitter’s manager of journalism and news, and Vivian Schiller, head of news. Neither would comment.
That doesn’t surprise me. This is an awkward debate for Twitter because it’s caught in the middle. On one side are the interests of individual users; on the other, the vibrancy, utility and profitability of the platform as a whole.
As we heard countless times in the months leading up to its IPO last November, Twitter sees its value residing in four key characteristics: It’s public, real-time, conversational and distributed. Of these, “public” is the one that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo almost always ticks off first. Some tiny proportion of users password-protect their tweets, but it’s such a small percentage as to be negligible.
For a company whose main source of revenue is advertising, public content is better than private content in all sorts of ways. It reaches a wider audience. It shows up in searches. It inspires the creation of still more public content. It finds its way into news articles (like Buzzfeed’s), raising awareness of the service and attracting new users.
As Dash and others point out, however, many Twitter users seem to regard it as a private or semi-private messaging service. Even those who don’t fall into this fallacy sometimes act in a way that shows they don’t fully grasp what it means to be public, real-time and conversational. That’s why people keep shooting their toes off in the manner of Justine Sacco – and why you never hear a peep out of Twitter when they do.
Like the debate over quoting tweets, episodes like #hasjustinelandedyet represent a devil’s bargain for Twitter. Sacco’s mistake resulted in hundreds of thousands of tweets being sent and worldwide coverage of Twitter that lasted for days and emphasized the site’s core value proposition — public, real-time, conversational, distributed — in textbook fashion. Yet it was, at core, a story about how someone screwed up her life with Twitter. For a company that’s been struggling to add new users, that’s not a great advertisement.
Twitter has all sorts of contact with journalists, from its best-practices publications to the seminars in runs in newsrooms on using Twitter. (I’ve attended one at Forbes, given by Mark Luckie.) It would be the easiest thing in the world for Twitter to say: Journalists who want to quote or embed a tweet by someone who’s not a public figure ought to ask for permission first.* But that would put a brake on public content creation, and it would antagonize one of Twitter’s most ardent constituencies.
Alternatively, the company could enter the debate to affirm that tweets are public, quoting them doesn’t require permission and anyone who doesn’t like it is free to set their accounts to private. But that would antagonize a different set of users and might cause users to practice more self-censorship — something social media companies see as a threat.
That leaves only one safe course of action: To stay mum and let the rest of us fight out out for ourselves — on Twitter.
*For the record, I think this would be a lousy idea. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I think asking permission to quote or embed a public tweet is a matter of courtesy and discretion, not a requirement of journalistic ethics.