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Aug 2 / King Kaufman

Olympics Twitter controversy: What can we learn?

This week’s Olympics Twitter controversy has caused some well-justified hand-wringing over the use of Twitter as a journalistic tool.

This isn’t the same kind of hand-wringing I indulged in yesterday on this blog, when I wrote about the quick-trigger nature of Twitter making it easier for reporters to insert themselves into a story, however inadvertently.

The case of Guy Adams highlights a more fundamental worry: Can Twitter be trusted as a journalistic tool?

Adams is the Los Angeles bureau chief for the Independent, a British newspaper. He was sharply critical of NBC’s Olympics coverage in a series of tweets, at one point urging any followers who were similarly frustrated to send an email to NBC Olympics chief Gary Zenkel. Adams included Zenkel’s NBC Universal address in the tweet.

Publishing someone’s private information, including an email address, is a violation of Twitter’s rules of service. In a blog post, Twitter said it only enforces such violations when there is a complaint.

NBC had said that Twitter—which is partnering with NBC in Olympics coverage, it’s important to note—let the TV network know about Adams’ tweet and urged it to file a complaint.

In the blog post, Twitter general counsel Alex Macgillivray acknowledged that the social network had notified NBC of the violation, and apologized for that, calling it “the part of this story that we did mess up”:

We do not proactively report or remove content on behalf of other users no matter who they are. 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.

And with that, Macgillivray announced that Adams’ account had been restored.

So all ended sort of well, with Twitter saying the right thing about how it needs to nurture trust in its users. The way for Twitter to maintain users’ trust is to act as if it were a neutral platform.

But as blogger and tech thinker Dave Winer likes to point out, Twitter is not a neutral platform. It’s a for-profit business:

All this time the press has been acting as if Twitter were a public utility, when it is nothing like that. It’s a service operated for free by a private company. They don’t see it in any way as a public utility. They have good PR and have chosen a friendly logo, and they make jokes and they’re nice guys. But they’re running a business. And your writing is subject to their whims. And your recourse is nothing. Read the terms of service.

Twitter has been a good corporate citizen in a lot of ways when it comes to establishing and maintaining user trust. It has a policy, for example, of notifying users of governmental requests for information, as it famously did in the WikiLeaks case.

But at some point, Twitter could decide that some other thing is more important to its business plan than “the trust our users have in us.” If that happens, the outcome might not be as friendly to journalism as it was in this case, when Twitter apologized for overstepping its enforcement bounds and punishing a journalist.

So what to do about that? To paraphrase my favorite Mark Twain passage: I’m happy to finally be asked a question I know the answer to, and the answer is I don’t know.

Alex Howard, who is O’Reilly Media’s “Government 2.0 Washington correspondent,” has some ideas, though. Writing on O’Reilly Radar, he urges publishers to own their own platform:

While there is clearly enormous utility in “going where the people are” online to participate in conversations, share news and listen to learn what’s happening, that activity doesn’t come without strings or terms of service. The existential challenge for the Internet and society … is that the technology platforms [that] constitute what many people regard as the new public square are owned by private companies.

As individual writers, you and I are probably not going to start our own social networking service that’s a neutral platform and that will draw the world away from Twitter. Well, I’m not anyway.

So, just ignore all this? Here’s Winer again, advising us to keep one foot on the platform and the other on the train, as some old songs say. “Twitter is the platform. The feed is the train,” Winer writes.

That is, since the people are on Twitter, it pays to be on Twitter. But don’t go all in on Twitter, or any other privately owned platform, such as Facebook. It might not always work for you. Always keep a foot on the open web.

  • digiphile

    Thanks for the link and quote! I certainly agree with you that the vast majority of writers — and people in general — aren’t going to start their own social networking service. We can and do, however, have the means to create and host our own websites on the open Web, as you point out and media companies/publishers continue to do, and my point here was that it’s worth doing so.