You Know Twitter?


Is Twitter attractive to you?

Do you like being able to post random thoughts, snippets of information, important news you want to share, converse with people in short bursts? Twitter has attracted over 160 million user accounts, which have generated more than 30 billion pieces of content, although not each one has an actual living person behind it. Reflect on those numbers, and that growth curve. You soon realise that nobody can really know everything there is to know, or see everything there is to see on Twitter. It’s like trying to see the whole of the country from your window. But what do you know about Twitter?

Do you know about Trending Topics?

I noted this image, used by Twitter in their help pages to illustrate the explanation for hashtag trending with a certain irony. To see that they chose to use #IranElection, still the longest ever trending topic in the history of Twitter, was a great compliment at the time the help pages were published. It was also a source of validation, and even tacit support from the developers for the cause of the people of Iran. Now though, it just makes me feel nostalgic.

Twitter was a very different application back in the Summer of 2009, when there were tens of thousands of users on the #IranElection tag. Collectively, we were pretty savvy too; we excelled at learning how to game and manipulate the rather naive application logic to get our messages out and to storm trending topics pretty much at will.

These days, not so much. Twitter is growing up and is a very different app now. It has obvious barriers and monitors in place that control content, trends, etc. It has a massive team compared to the hardy band of about eight people that were there last year. And it has a strategy. There are clear signs to me, as a technically literate person, that Twitter development is sacrificing the social media information value proposition in favor of a profit based model. They have to do that; it’s too big to be free. We have to accept it as a fact of our digital life.

Are Tweets or Tweeters censored?

This past week or so the debate about whether twitter is censoring content and trending topics has been raging over the mysterious non-appearance of #WikiLeaks in the Trending Topics. Canny users switched to #CableGate and, lo and behold! it was trending in minutes. Then we were fed some line about how #WikiLeaks couldn’t trend because it is also a user name. Wrong. There are several examples of trending topics that are also user names. See more on this debate here.

One form of censorship could be imposed by having a secret ranking score for every Twitter user. If that ranking was used when determining the “value” or “quality” of a tweet, and for example whether or not to include it in trending topics, it would indeed be interesting. It would also amount to a certain kind of censorship, though under another name. And surely those who use Twitter most heavily, as most rights advocates do, are going to be more prone to any errors or skew in the ranking system. It can’t after all, be a manual process. Or can it?

Is Twitter subject to political  influence?

In my opinion, Twitter started to shrink back from unbridled information distribution pretty soon after it became clear that #IranElection was not just a flash in the pan. I thought for a while that programmed changes to re-tweets was the first casualty, but on closer inspection of my archive for #IranElection tweets I noticed that in fact certain users were being censored from the Twitter API as early as the end of June 2009. Or in other words, from the time that the State Department allegedly “stepped in” to “persuade” Twitter not to go ahead with their scheduled downtime, for the sake of people in Iran who were using Twitter to communicate with the outside world. None of that is actually what happened. Firstly, it was not Twitter’s planned downtime but their network service provider. Second, it was not the State Department who intervened, but a mass of users on Twitter, FaceBook and elsewhere on the internet, using status updates, phone calls, emails and fax messages to plead with the network provider on behalf of the Iranian people to postpone their scheduled maintenance.

That the State Department intervention story was actually denied by Biz Stone, one of the founders of Twitter, in an email to the BBC soon afterwards, and again later by co-founder Evan Williams, lends credence to my account of these events. However, that the State Department claimed responsibility, and the April 2010 announcement on the Twitter blog that Twitter would be giving the Library of Congress unbridled access to the entire tweet database, conjures up some rather different, and potentially disturbing thoughts.

Do tweets disappear?

On several occasions I have talked to friends on Twitter whose tweets have never made it onto their timeline. They just seem to disappear. There could be many reasons for this. That it has only ever happened to these friends when posting criticism of things like government policy or controversial subject matter could be because most of my friends are protesters or controverts. It could just be a coincidence. If you believe in coincidences.

Have you ever tried searching for your tweets on Google? How does that work out for you? For me it is as much hit as miss, and if I search specifically for tweets on my user url I get less than 6000 results even though I have posted over 106,000 tweets at the time of writing this post. What is that about? I don’t know, and although it is of no help to anyone else who might want to see my old tweets, I don’t really care on a personal level, because I archive most of my tweets anyway. But not many people do that, and it is strange to think that their tweets might not be available via Google. Will the Library of Congress eventually make my tweets available to me via a web interface? I doubt it.

Have you tried subscribing to an RSS feed of tweets? I use Google Reader extensively, with over 230 feeds,  and the ones from Twitter are by far the worst performing, have the highest number of missing items, and are the least frequently updated of all.

Is Twitter high risk?

Do you worry that you might be punished for posting on Twitter, like the disgruntled air traveller in Ireland who was fined for an offhand remark about blowing an airport “to the sky” (and who incidentally was the cause of a trending topic: #IamSpartacus with about 30000 tweets). Cheer up, at least you won’t be sentenced to 15 years prison like blogger Hossein Ronaghi Maleki (@khorramdin) in Iran or sent to a labour camp for a year like one woman in China.

What does this mean for  people like me who want to use social media to raise awareness and share information about events? For my part, I am waiting for the next thing to come along. I am hoping it will be free, open, reliable, robust and secure, and enduring this watered-down, glitzed-up iteration of Twitter in the mean time.

10 thoughts on “You Know Twitter?

  1. A new and gruesome twist to the commentary on Twitter’s later developments and its impact on activists: The algorithm for selecting Top Tweets has caused a tweet from the verified account for terrorist cult leader Maryam Rajavi to appear at the top of the stream for the #IranElection tag on Student Day in Iran (16 Azar – 7 December) even though it has been re-tweeted less often than updates from unverified accounts. This is not only biased and hurtful, it is downright dangerous.

    Students and others in Iran are arrested, tortured and convicted on charges of being connected to this group, which is outlawed in Iran, and are being handed more severe sentences on this basis.

    Not one of those accused has ever admitted to these false allegations; as far as we know from the few reports we are able to receive about detainees, they have strenuously denied them. But the heartless MKO continue to add their insignia to videos of student rallies, and to release them without blurring the faces of protesters. The MKO continue to offer their hollow support and congratulations to the students, while never once denying they have ties to the accused. Not even when that could save their life or free them from torture. And they do this using the #IranElection hash tag, deepening the pain of their treachery.

    For Twitter to show preference for the MKO’s updates only adds insult to injury.

  2. Liss,

    Thanks for shedding light on the intricacies of Twitter. As you know, I’ve “crowned” you as my “go to” gal for ANY technical issue I have with Twitter. This article is very insightful and helps Twitter users understand the mechanisms of Twitter (many hidden and not obvious). Please keep writing and sharing here!


  3. whew! way over my level of understanding but i’m glad there are folk like you all around. i met an Iranian Air Force officer (s) in Denver CO a million years ago. we used to correspond (via snail mail) we knew the Shah was censoring the mail so we had a bit of fun with the content of our letters. Which is to say that if “big brother” wants to bother with little old me then go for it. I’d like to learn if i’m as brave as the freedom fighters of Egypt.

    and twitter continually challenges me to make my point succinctly. a good vocabulary helps, as does a dictionary.

    i like twitter and i’m grateful for the public service they provide.

    the ability to communicate on an international level quickly is a blessing.

    • Hehe having a little fun with the censors sounds like a blast! I agree, Twitter is a great tool or connecting with people on a global scale, and also for shrinking those distances. The format is challenging and requires thoughtful self-discipline, yet it still manages to support several different communication styles.

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