In praise of the ephemeral!

Like many people who spend a lot of time (perhaps far too much time) using Twitter, the recent revelation that Twitter was ‘partnering’ with data-mining company DataSift to ‘unlock’ their tweet archive made me distinctly uneasy. The idea was presented as something essentially beneficial – unlocking an archive sounds like a ‘good’ thing, getting benefits from what is ‘public’ information (because Twitter’s terms and conditions say quite clearly that the default position for a tweet is that it is ‘public’).

Why, then, do I feel nervous about it? Privacy campaigners reacted badly to the idea. Privacy International said: “Twitter has turned a social network that was meant to promote real-time global conversation into a vast market-research enterprise with unwilling, unpaid participants,” while the Electronic Frontier Foundation described the idea as ‘creepy’.

To my mind, both are right. Yes, the information is public, but for me the nature of twitter – the joy of twitter – is that it is spontaneous, instinctive, current and instantaneous. When I tweet, I tweet in the moment – and almost all the best tweeters work mostly like that. Pre-prepared, marketing, political tweets are generally as dull as dishwater – which is why such excellent hashtags as #tweetlikeanMP are so effective, showing up the lack of honesty, spontaneity and creativity in the tweeting of most of our politicians.

I may be unusual – after all, I don’t follow the likes of Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber as many millions do, and only follow a handful of MPs – but I don’t think I’m that unusual. I like the ephemeral nature of Twitter, the fact that something I tweet one day will be all but forgotten the next day – indeed, something I tweet one hour will be mostly forgotten even an hour later. Setting up a twitter ‘archive’ puts that spontaneity at risk.

Anyone who works in the privacy field must be familiar with the idea of the Panopticon. Bentham’s concept was of a prison, set out in a circular form, in which at any moment the occupant of a cell could be observed. The key point was that the possibility of being observed was intended to alter the behaviour of the prisoner. If they know they might be seen at any time, they would control their own behaviour – they would be naturally constrained, and not behave badly. The logic of the Panopticon lies behind many of the most privacy-invasive policies both online and in the ‘real’ world – ever-present CCTV cameras, constant monitoring of web-traffic and so forth. It makes sense, however, only when you want to restrict the behaviour of people. It curtails freedom, stifles creativity, crushes spontaneity. That might be necessary to control potentially violent and dangerous prisoners – but in a ‘free society’ it is disastrous.

For real freedom of action, for real freedom of expression, you need the reverse of the panopticon. You need people to feel free to speak, to write, to express themselves without the feeling that anything and everything you might say or do might be written down, quoted back at you (often out of context), manipulated and misused. You need to know that making mistakes won’t be fatal – that you can correct yourself and clarify your comments and not be treated as some kind of hypocrite.

Right now, on the internet, Twitter is one of the few places where that kind of freedom feels possible. Digital memory is all too eternal – Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s excellent ‘Delete’ talks eloquently of the benefits of forgetting in the digital era. Mayer-Schönberger’s concept of data with expiry dates may be difficult to bring into reality – but Twitter has, to date, been one of the places where in a practical sense it almost happens. That is something worth celebrating, something worth preserving. The Twitter/DataSift deal, and others like it, put it at risk. For me, it puts the whole benefit of Twitter at risk.

If I want something to be archived, to be used as a reference, I’ll put it in a blog like this one – there are plenty of places where the eternal nature of internet data storage is possible. There are very few where the benefits of the opposite, the joys of the ephemeral shine through. Twitter is one. I hope Twitter itself realises this – and changes its direction.

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16 thoughts on “In praise of the ephemeral!

  1. Excellent; still it feels like you miss the point a little.
    I completely agree with your view that much of the joy of Twitter is related to the spontaneous nature of the medium, but I also believe the power of twitter is the public nature of the tweets, and I’ve always thought about my complete timeline as a public archive.
    When tweeted it’s public until deleted, and this is how I think it should be.

    To me the appalling part of the DataSift deal is not that my old data are available to them, but that they aren’t available to me or the public; only my last 3000 tweets are accessible from Twitter, and Twitters own search doesn’t return results older than a few weeks.

    • I had a discussion with my colleague Daithi MacSithigh about this – he was a lot closer to your point of view than mine. His belief is that if tweets are public, the archive should be fully public, not managed privately…

      …and I do see both of your points, and I do like the idea of sifting back through my tweets to a certain extent, but I still prefer the idea that there should be somewhere that what happens is temporary and spontaneous, more free and less recorded. If I want my tweets to be archived, then I’ll record and archive them myself.

      • Making the archive fully public is a nice idea in theory, and I completely agree with it in principle, but don’t underestimate the cost of storing and providing (ideally unrestricted) access to that archive. Who pays for that if you’re going to prevent Twitter from realising the potential revenue locked up in that archive?

      • It’s all very well to say that, but then how do you propose Twitter pays for the service it’s providing to you at no cost? The value locked up in that archive to researchers, politicians, and yes marketers too, is orders of magnitude greater than is available from advertising.

      • It’s certainly a challenge – and I do understand why they’re doing it the way that they are. I would like there to be another way… a wikimedia style foundation might be a starting point, but there are clearly limitations in that model too. Personally, though, I think the current idea of ‘monetizing’ the archive is ultimately likely to push people in other directions – because there ARE alternatives, and more will develop if people are dissatisfied with Twitter.

      • I agree that this could start pushing people in other directions, but I don’t think it will happen enough to get Twitter to change their policies. In my experience most people only change their habits for two reasons… 1) it directly affects their day-to-day lives, and 2) they’re following a trend. As far as trends go, if enough high-profile users switch from Twitter to something else (which is unlikely because they want/need eyeballs) then yes, Joe Public will also switch. As for direct effects, it’s highly unlikely there will be any. Access to the archive is not going to be cheap (saw ~$200 to access an hours-worth of it quoted in a recent interview with their CTO), and there is a far greater return available for big picture analysis than in looking at what Paul Bernal said about McDonalds on a drizzly Tuesday in April 2010.

      • Ha ha! Yes, what I write here won’t have any noticeable impact, that’s for sure… but twitter’s all about trends, and depends a great deal on the goodwill of the people who use it. Twitter has (in general) had a fairly good reputation for standing up for the rights of the people who use it, and that reputation matters.

      • Indeed they do, which is why the archive must keep up with tweet deletions. If you delete a tweet from your account, that tweet will be deleted from the archive. I don’t see what more they need to do to comply with your desire for privacy in combination with their terms of use.

        Out of curiosity, do you have an example of how you imagine this archive might be used? A concrete illustration of why you don’t like the idea of it being “made available specifically for ‘marketing’ purposes”?

      • It will be interesting to know exactly how the archive will work in terms of deletions: if I ‘delete’ after an archive is made, presumably the tweet I try to delete will remain in the ‘old’ archive, but be deleted from any archive made later…

        …and in terms of an example, how about using a trend to look for people who were interested in opposing the current NHS reforms – it might be made for marketing purposes, as profiling such people might suggest (for example) they were potential customers for buying a ‘left wing’ magazine. Once those profiles are made, however, they could be used for all kinds of alternative purposes – even, ultimately, for tracking potential protesters to avoid ‘problems’ with protest marches. Far fetched? Perhaps….

      • From what I’ve read deletions will be reflected more or less immediately in the archive. Remember that we’re talking about ~500TB of data (and counting) and that’s not something you’d want to “export” never mind transfer from one place to another too often.

        I understand concerns like that, but do you really think that analysis like that isn’t already going on, and was happening long before the archive was made available commercially? I guarantee that if you’re a “person of interest” to some government or other, your tweets are already being archived and analysed by them. And if you’re not yet such a person it’s unlikely that when you are there will be much more value for said governments in the archive than is already available on your timeline on the Twitter website. And that doesn’t even touch upon the fact that the US government can already access this archive if they have just cause.

        So, to ask the question again with a minor rewording, can you provide an example of why having this archive available for marketing purposes makes you nervous, bearing in mind the high cost of access and the sheer volume of data?

      • A few points. Firstly, whilst of course you wouldn’t want to export the whole archive, it might be very attractive to make an appropriately filtered extraction for your own purposes. Secondly, I do agree that of course a lot of this kind of stuff will be going on anyway – but does that mean that we should systematise it, make it ‘legal’ and official? Thirdly, though this kind of thing has almost certainly been going on for a long time by ‘authorities’, having it done by commercial organisations and for commercial purposes may even be more risky. They can put the investment, expertise and effort in – and then the authorities (and indeed potentially less ‘legal’ groups) can just piggy back on that effort.

        The overall point is that we would be establishing a precedent, setting this kind of thing in stone, making it part of the architecture. That’s something I’d rather avoid.

  2. Paul, great that you decided to pick this one up. Like Hakon I am angry that my tweets beyond a point are not searchable to my followers however they are for sale. Just a reminder that I *am* the product.
    I love Twitter too as you know – I frequently enjoy your Tweets! I love the spontenaity too, though it has a dark side of course and there are a few rather disturbed individuals who abuse its ubquity- lurking in the shadows. Generally though I love the real time buzz and its not really reference material unless there is a link you have lost for something really interesting. Again it may not be searchable sadly, but it *is* for sale….

  3. Intriguing. The BBC story seems a bit over-blown – the Twitter archive is hardly ‘locked’ – there are any number of ways at getting at your own and other’s tweets.

    @mhawksey and @psychemedia have done a lot of work looking at archiving and visualising data from Twitter, used widely by the IT/IM community in HE and beyond for event amplification. I’m also aware of a couple of projects looking at huge Twitter archives as Big Data. Plus the Library of Congress is setting up a Twitter archive, bless them…

    FWIW my initial reaction was of the “why would anyone want to archive Twitter, you might as well record every phone conversation”, or, in the event context, record people’s convos in the coffee break. There may be nuggets of value in (for example) event backchannels, Twitter chats etc, but they need curating (what used to be called editing…). Comparative analytics for events can also be interesting – which is where brands etc come in.

    I’ll RT you on my ‘personal’ Twitter account.

    • Thanks! I’ve always been aware that twitter archives were possible – some of the twitter chats I regularly participate in (like the #privchat every Tuesday afternoon) are ‘storified’ for later consumption. What I don’t like is the idea that the whole thing is regularly archived, and that it’s made available specifically for ‘marketing’ purposes. Though that may appear harmless at first sight, ‘marketing’ generally involves exactly the kind of profiling that is potentially dangerous in other ways…

      …and the potential for misuse of a twitter archive is enormous.

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