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Is Twitter us or them? #twitterfail and living somewhere between public commitment and private investment

July 31, 2012

This is about the fourth Olympics that’s been trumpeted as the first one to embrace social media and the Internet — just as, depending on how you figure it, it’s about the fourth U.S. election in a row that’s the first to go digital. It may be in the nature of new technologies that we appear perpetually, or at least for a very long time, to be just on the cusp of something. NBC has proudly trumpeted its online video streaming, its smartphone and tablet apps, and most importantly its partnership with microblogging platform Twitter. NBC regularly displays the #Olympics hashtag on the broadcasts, their coverage includes tweets and twit pics from athletes, and their website has made room for sport-specific Twitter streams.

It feels like an odd corporate pairing, at least from one angle. Twitter users have tweeted about past Olympics, for sure. But from a user’s perspective, its not clear what we need or get from a partnership with the broadcast network that’s providing exclusive coverage of the event. Isn’t Twitter supposed to be the place we talk about the things out there, the things we experience or watch or care about? But from another angle, it makes perfect sense. Twitter needs to reinforce the perception that it is the platform where chatter and commentary about what’s important to us should occur, and convince a broader audience to try it; it gets to do so here as “official narrator” of the Games. NBC needs ways to connect its coverage to the realm of social media, but without allowing anything digital to pre-empt its broadcasts. From a corporate perspective, interdependence is a successful economic strategy; from the users’ perspective, we want more independence between the two.

This makes the recent dustup about Twitter’s suspension of the account of Guy Adams, correspondent for The Independent (so perfect!), so troubling to so many. Adams had spent the first days of the Olympics criticizing NBC’s coverage of the games, particularly for time-delaying events to suit the U.S. prime time schedule, trimming the opening ceremony, and for some of the more inane commentary from NBC’s hosts. When Adams suggested that people should complain to Gary Zenkel, executive VP at NBC Sports and director of their Olympics coverage, and included Zenkel’s NBC email address, Twitter suspended his account.

Just to play out the details of the case, from the coverage that has developed thus far, we can say a couple of things. Twitter told Adams that his account had been suspended for “posting an individual’s private information such as private email address, physical address, telephone number, or financial documents.” Twitter asserts that it only considers rule violations if there is a complaint filed about them, suggesting that NBC had complained; in response, NBC says that Twitter brought the tweet (or tweets?) to NBC’s attention, who then submitted a complaint. Twitter has since reinstated Adams’ account, and reaffirmed the care and impartiality it takes in enforcing its rules.

Much of the conversation online, including on Twitter, has focused on two things: expressions of disappointment in Twitter for the perceived crime of shutting down a journalist’s account for criticizing a corporate partner, and a debate about whether Zenkel’s email should be considered public or private, and as such, making Twitter’s decision (despite its motivation) a legitimate or illegitimate interpretation of their own rules. This second question is an interesting one: Twitter’s rules not clarify the difference between the “private email addresses” they prohibit, and whatever the opposite is. Is Zenkel’s email address public because he’s a professional acting in a professional capacity? because it has appeared before on the web? Because it can be easily figured out (by the common firstname.lastname structure of NBC’s emails addresses? Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic has a typically well-informed take on the issue.)

But I think this question of whether Twitter was appropriately acting on its own rules, and even the broader charge of whether its actions were motivated by their economic partnership with NBC, are both founded on a deeper question: what do we expect Twitter to be? This can be posed in naïve terms, as it often is in the heat of debate: are they an honorable supporter of free speech, or are they craven corporate shills? We may know these are exaggerated or untenable positions, both of them, but they’re still so appealing they continue to frame our debates. For example, in a widely circulated critique of Twitter’s decision, Jeff Jarvis proclaims that

For this incident itself is trivial, the fight frivolous. What difference does it make to the world if we complain about NBC’s tape delays and commentators’ ignorance? But Twitter is more than that. It is a platform. It is a platform that has been used by revolutionaries to communicate and coordinate and conspire and change the world. It is a platform that is used by journalists to learn and spread the news. If it is a platform it should be used by anyone for any purpose, none prescribed or prohibited by Twitter. That is the definition of a platform.

Adams himself titled his column for The Independent about the incident, “I thought the internet age had ended this kind of censorship.”

I want Jarvis and Adams to be right, here. But the reality is not so inspiring. We know that Twiiter is neither a militant guardian of free speech nor a glorified corporate billboard, that Twitter’s relationship to NBC and other commercial partners matters but does not determine, that Twitter is attempting to be a space for contentious speech and have rules of conduct that balance a many communities, values, and legal obligations. But exactly what we expect of Twitter in real contexts is imprecise, yet it matters for how we use it and how we grapple with a decision like the suspension of Adams’ account for the comments he made. And what these expectations are help to reveal, may even constitute, or experience of digital culture as a space for public, critical, political speech.

What if we put these possible expectations on a spectrum, if only so we can step away from the extremes on either end:

  • Social media are private services; we sign up for them. Their rules can be arbitrary, capricious, and self-serving if they choose. They can partner with content providers, including priviliging that content and protecting them from criticism. Users can take a walk if they don’t like it.
  • Social media are private services; we sign up for them. Their rules can be arbitrary and self-serving, but they should be fairly enforced. They can partner with content providers, including priviliging that content and protecting them from criticism, but they should be transparent about that promotion.
  • Social media are private services used by the public; Their rules are up to them, but should be justifiable and necessary; they should be fairly enforced, though taking into account the logistical challenges. They can partner with content providers, including priviliging that content, but they should be demarcate that content from what users produce.
  • Social media are private services used by the public; because of that public trust, those rules should balance honoring the public’s fair use of the network and protecting the service’s ability to function and profit; they should be fairly enforced, despite the logistical challenges. They can partner with content providers, including priviliging that content; they should be demarcate that content from what users produce.
  • Social media are private services and public platforms; because of that public trust, those rules should impartially honor the public’s fair use of the network; they should be fairly enforced, despite the logistical challenges. They can partner with sponsors that support this public forum through advertising, but it has a journalistic commitment to allow speech, even if its critical of its partners or of itself.
  • Social media are private but have become public platforms; the only rules it can set should be in the service of adhering to the law, and protecting the public forum itself from the harm users can do to it (such as hate speech). They can partner with sponsors that support this public forum through advertising, but it has a journalistic commitment to allow speech, even if its critical of its partners or of itself.
  • Social media are public platforms; and as such must have a deep commitment to free speech. While they can curtail the most egregious content under legal obligations, they should otherwise err on the side of allowing and protecting all speech, even when it is unruly, disrespectful, political contentious, or critical of itself. Sponsors and other corporate partnerships are nearly anathema to this mission, and should be constrained to the only the most cordoned off forms of advertising.
  • Social media should facilitate all speech and block none, no matter how reprehensible, offensive, dangerous, or illegal. Any commercial partnership is a suspicious distortion of this commitment. Users can take a walk if they don’t like it.

While the possibilities on the extreme ends of this spectrum may sound theoretically defensible to some, they are easily cast aside by test cases. Even the most ardent defender of free speech would pause if a platform allowed or defended the circulation of child pornography. And even the most ardent free market capitalist would recognize that a platform solely and capriciously in the service of its advertisers would undoubtedly fail as a public medium. What we’re left with, then, is the messier negotiations and compromises in the middle. Publicly, Twitter has leaned towards the public half of this spectrum: many celebrated when the company appealed court orders requiring them to reveal the identity of users involved in the Occupy protests, and Twitter has regularly celebrated itself for its role in protests and revolutions around the world. At the same time, they do have an array of rules that govern the use of their platform, rules that range from forbidding inappropriate content, limiting harassing or abusive behavior, prohibiting technical tricks that can garner more followers, establishing best practices for automated responders, and spelling out privacy violations. Despite their nominal (and in practice substantive) commitment to protecting speech, they are a private provider, that retains the rights and responsibilities to curate their user content according to rules they choose. This is the reality of platforms that we are reluctant to, but in the end must, accept.

What may be most uncharacteristic in the Adams case, and most troubling to Twitter’s critics, is not that Twitter enforced a vague rule, or did so when Adams was criticizing their corporate partner, in a way that, while scurrilous, was not illegal. It was that Twitter proactively identified Adams as a trouble spot for NBC — whether for his specific posting the Zenkel’s email or for the whole stream of criticism — and brought it to NBC’s attention. What Twitter did was to think like a corporate partner, not like a public platform. Of course it was within Twitter’s right to do so, and to suspend Adams’ account in response. And yes, there is a some risk of lost good will and public trust. But the suspension is an indication that, while Twitter’s rhetoric leans towards the claim of a public forum, their mindset about who they are and what purpose they serve remains enmeshed with their private status and their private investments than users might hope.

This is the tension lurking in Twitter’s apology about the incident, where they acknowledge that they had in fact alerted NBC about Adams’ post and encouraged therm to complain, then acted on that complaint. “This behavior is not acceptable and undermines the trust our users have in us. We should not and cannot be in the business of proactively monitoring and flagging content, no matter who the user is — whether a business partner, celebrity or friend.” Twitter can do its best to reinstate that sense of quasi-journalistic commitment to the public. But the fact that the alert even happened suggests that this promise of public commitment, and the expectations we have of Twitter to hold to it, may not be a particularly accurate grasp of the way their public commitment is entangled with their private investment.

Cross posted at Culture Digitally.

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