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.