Why would you trust Twitter?

February 19, 2011 — 6 Comments

I heard about it in a round-a-bout way, but after some searching I found an article explaining what happened: Today Twitter cut millions of mobile users off without warning

Considering that the site is called Tweet Smarter, it makes sense that the tone of the article is incredibly forgiving to Twitter’s behavior. I don’t use this lightly, but it sounds like a fan, which of course is short of fanatic. They’ve drank the kool-aid, so their parameters for critique is rather limited. Again, they have the word “tweet” in the name of their site.

It got me thinking about the federated social web, of course. Most things do. And I was thinking about StatusNet, the company. From that article:

Plenty of wonderful people at Twitter care. And other wonderful people at Twitter have a vision of what Twitter can do for the world. But Twitter overall is immature as a company, can’t control its own bureaucracy, and isn’t user-centric…yet. Love Twitter? Love its users? Lots of us do. But Twitter, as a company, does not yet.

I think there are plenty of cool people at StatusNet, and I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out and drinking with many of them. And while I don’t think I am qualified to judge if they are a “mature” company (give me a break), I think they are doing great work and I support them.

The important thing, though, is that I don’t have to. In fact, part of the appeal of StatusNet, as both a company and software, is that they encourage you to not trust them. Of course, as a company providing paid services, they are as trustworthy as any other company, there are repercussions and avenues to go down if they were to be bad at what they do. And like any other company, they fall back on their reputation and history to provide those services, and they are doing great in that arena; they have a lot of talent that people can trust.

Twitter plays by the same rules in that regard (though I don’t really know if they provide services to any person I would know, maybe media companies?). They have their reputation, and are governed by laws and such. The divergence comes from when you look at how their treat their product and the people who use it. Unlike the Tweet Smarter crew, I am not so forgiving.

It makes sense that I wouldn’t be, I am spoiled. I get everything that Twitter offers, but with multiple layers of benefits that a Twitter user doesn’t even understand they are not getting.

  • Self-hosted: I have the ability to put as many resources as I need towards my instance.
  • Self-protection: I don’t have to rely on StatusNet or some other company to safeguard my information. Remember, they play by rules that can have be leveraged over them. I assert that going after an individual is more costly, because in my case at least, I have more to lose than a company does. I will be a bitter opponent, and that protects me to a certain extent.
  • Self-censorship: There are interesting conversations about censorship happening. Besides using free culture to combat censorship, StatusNet allows for an entity (individual, community or company) to set their own standards for what they discuss. I can’t think of Twitter having censored any accounts (though it wouldn’t surprise me), they certainly have the ability to do so.
  • My culture: Speaking of censorship, all the issues with walled gardens apply here, of course. Federation is about freedom. You can participate in your culture on your terms, without a company setting the rules for you.
  • Privacy: This is important to me, and I hope it becomes important to more people using the internet. I take privacy seriously. Companies constantly try to track me to feed me targeted ads. I don’t know if they take my privacy seriously.

It should be evident at this point that while people think that Twitter is free, it is neither free as in speech nor as in beer. There are real costs involved in using a service like Twitter, but none of those expenditures insure any of the things that make using the internet great. We should remember, we don’t join social networks because the companies are doing something special; we join them because we want the human connection.

A company like StatusNet gets that. You can see it in their licensing (the AGPL pretty much ensures that the software isn’t going anywhere, even if the company changes in a way that is abusive to the community), and you can see it in the kinds of projects their team has worked on and supported in the past.

I don’t know why anyone would trust Twitter. But what I do trust is a company that makes a product where trust is not required.

And on that note, may I have data portability that works, please? ^_^

6 responses to Why would you trust Twitter?

  1. Interesting post, but I don’t understand how you can compare Twitter and StatusNet in terms of privacy or reputation. Twitter is a community, one of the biggest social networks in the world. StatusNet is a piece of software you can build a community on.

    The argument that StatusNet is self hosted would work if Twitter was a SaaS product. It isn’t. Rules? You should compare your community and Twitter, not Twitter and Status net. As far as privacy goes, do you use a credit card? Do you go talk about your privacy on your blog. So much for privacy. :)

    • Ivan:
      I think it’s a bit incorrect to say that “twitter has a community and statusnet does not”. I spend a lot of time on one statusnet instance ( http://identi.ca/cwebber ) and feel *very much so* like I am taking part in a community. But it’s really more of a subcommunity. I think also the same thing happens on Twitter (even more so in fact): it’s not “the twitter community”, it’s “a bunch of subcommunities, on Twitter”.

      Email is a very big part of a lot of social interaction these days, and a lot of communities are built around it. But I think it’s wrong to talk about the “email community”. Similarly with blogging.

      I hope microblogging becomes the same way, and that’s why I’m a big fan of OStatus. Twitter could do a lot by opening up their community to federation; just providing PubSubHubbub and Salmon support would do a lot for that.

    • I think Chris summed up the difference between how the word community is used.

      The argument that StatusNet is self hosted would work if Twitter was a SaaS product. It isn’t.

      I am not sure how you come to that conclusion, I don’t think that the opposite of “self-hosted” is “software as a service”. I also think it is arguable as to whether or not Twitter is, or will be, a SaaS provider. However, the point you should take from me listing that is that it is one of the obvious benefits of StatusNet and other federated social web software, which Twitter obviously has no intention of allowing (not a judgement, just a observation).

      As far as privacy goes, do you use a credit card? Do you go talk about your privacy on your blog. So much for privacy. :)

      Incidentally, I try not to use a credit card. ^_^

      There are two things that come to mind in response to these questions. First of all, talking about my “private matters” in a public channel is not a violation of privacy (I mean, there seems to be a semantic issue with even being able to blog about private stuff, it isn’t any longer private). It is the non-consensual disclosing of another person’s private matters that is a violation of privacy.

      The second thing is that you seem to have a nihilist opinion towards privacy. It isn’t a binary problem, we are in a constant flux (some would say struggle) of how much privacy we are afforded. Using a credit card or blogging about my life doesn’t mean I give up my privacy across the board.

      Also, please don’t read into any single one of those points too much. I didn’t spend a lot of time on them, because I just wanted to mention them. Privacy is a lot things, and the type of issues surrounding Twitter are less about what a person shares about their life, and more about being tracked. It isn’t an easy thing to resolve, even for the self-hosted scene. I struggle with this on a daily basis as someone who administers servers on the net.

  2. “””I get everything that Twitter offers, but with multiple layers of benefits that a Twitter user doesn’t even understand they are not getting.”””

    ^ And, to be clear, normal end users don’t understand that they are not getting these benefits not because they don’t realize that’s possible, but because they don’t actually consider these to be benefits.

    I mean, I’m right there with you: I refuse to use services like Gmail, and self host my own e-mail. I DO NOT trust Google, and often find myself wanting to do subtle things that Google doesn’t really support.

    (I mean, e-mail is great and decentralized and all, and you can buffer the pain by using your own hostnames that you can switch off to other providers, but in the mean time they still are indexing all of your e-mail for marketing purposes and unless you are constantly backing it up /have your data/, which is scary.)

    Although, looking at your MX records (which are all google.com/googlemail.com) I see that even your need for privacy and self-hosting only go so far, and you /are/ willing to trust Google… so uhh… yeah. ;P

    But most people, even me, stop caring at some point. I do /not/ purchase bandwidth to my office to run my own internally administered servers anymore, for example. And, for most people, using Gmail or Twitter or anything else is “just fine”.

    As for how Twitter treats their “users”, UberTwitter is not their user, and that understanding that they, in fact, did not “cut off” any users: they disabled a single client that doesn’t seem to understand that calling their product “UberTwitter” was downright egregious.

    • And, to be clear, normal end users don’t understand that they are not getting these benefits not because they don’t realize that’s possible, but because they don’t actually consider these to be benefits.

      I concede that is the likely situation, but I will remain an optimist in thinking that exposure to these “benefits” will inform the decisions that people make in the future. Another goal of posting this is to give people a starting point when they start looking more in-depth into alternatives. When things break, there is always a few people who were in a bad mood that day and say, “the hell with it, what else is there?” ^_^

      Although, looking at your MX records (which are all google.com/googlemail.com) I see that even your need for privacy and self-hosting only go so far, and you /are/ willing to trust Google… so uhh… yeah. ;P

      Thanks for calling me on this. It’s true, I’ve made compromises along the way. I don’t want to be too defensive, because I do need to do something about this, but it wasn’t a blind decision.

      I have been trying to marginalize the importance of e-mail in my life for years, and I try to set it as the last resort to reach me on my contact page. When it came between spending time hosting my own mail (I personally have a difficult time maintaining a mail server [for shame /]), and cutting back e-mail usage/encouraging encryption, it made sense at the time.

      Unfortunately, I have a lot of servers/services I am running, so once again e-mail gets put on the back burner. T_T

      As for how Twitter treats their “users”, UberTwitter is not their user, and that understanding that they, in fact, did not “cut off” any users: they disabled a single client that doesn’t seem to understand that calling their product “UberTwitter” was downright egregious.

      Thanks for sharing more details about that, I think that it was unfair of me to miscategorize their motives.

      However, that raises an interesting point, and is perhaps another area of concern: the externalities of business practices, when it is centralized.

      For example, if I were run a site called StatusNetCommunities, and I basically ignored the company’s attempts at getting me to distinguish myself from them (which I think is appropriate, just as Twitter is justified in taking actions against UberTwitter), then they have recourse.

      However, the one thing they can’t do is shut me down at the flip of switch. They could perhaps block me from identi.ca/*.status.net sites, but they can’t black ball me off the net.

      I want to make it clear that I am not saying this is a problem with Twitter, rather, it is a problem with any centralized service. I was making a direct comparison between Twitter and StatusNet because the moment called for discussion about Twitter, and that was the closest thing I could think of that would make sense to Twitter users (who are my intended audience). If this were Facebook I would be writing about Appleseed/Diaspora/Friendika, because that is a more logical mapping.

      Indeed, it wasn’t intended to sound like an advertisement for StatusNet. ^_^

      I hope that clarifies things a bit.

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