Wednesday, January 30

Twitter: is your social messaging as private as you think?

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Disclaimer: I work for bluepulse, one of the two companies featured in this post. Some features of bluepulse compete with Twitter, the other product featured in this post.

When you're social networking, ask yourself:

  1. Do I care if people outside my friends list can see what I've posted?
  2. Do I need to be able to undo/delete previous messages if I want to retract or correct what I've said?

Shana Albert on Social Desire has a great blog post on why she's become a passionate convert to Twitter. I like using Twitter too, but I'm concerned about an apparently casual attitude towards privacy amongst many social messaging products, and Twitter's the worst culprit I've seen so far. It might not seem like it at first, but your privacy is very important when you're social messaging.

But first, what's Twitter? It's another social messaging tool, similar to bluepulse in some ways (reminder disclaimer: I work for bluepulse). It lets you maintain a list of friends, and keep those friends updated on what you're doing, and because you're able to SMS your updates to Twitter, you have to limit the length of your messages to 140 characters or less.

Like many users, Shana likes Twitter's 140 character limit on messages because it forces her to be economical - it's the haiku of social messaging. But Twitter users often wax lyrical anyway, stringing together a series of messages to make a point, or pasting in an URL pointing to a blog post.

One of the attractions of reading Twitter posts is the creativity other users employ to express something complex, newsworthy or funny in 140 characters or less. But personally, I'd rather spend the time it takes me to cut my message down to <140 characters doing something else... like, getting on with my life. So I usually don't send any Twitter messages from my mobile, for instance, because I just can't get my life out in less than 60 seconds when I'm limited to 140 characters. Twitter also works on your phone's browser, like bluepulse; there's even a specific mobile version and many third-party mobile clients for Twitter, but the 140 character limit remains. Bah!

Your privacy is an illusion

Sadly, there's something I like even less than having to compose mobile haiku: privacy issues. Twitter lets anyone search for new people by keyword and then subscribe to their updates, without the author's permission. As the author you get a notification if someone has chosen to follow your updates, but the default privacy options allow anyone to follow your updates. Go to Twitter's settings and there is an option to restrict updates to people you approve of, but it's not the default. I'm sure there are many Twitter users who haven't even paused to consider how this might affect them now and in the future.

Scary ex-boyfriend that won't go away? He can follow your updates on Twitter. Would like to discuss work-related issues with colleagues? Don't, because competitors can follow your every word.

Twitter even publishes a public RSS feed of everyone's updates. You could subscribe to that in your feed-reader and track anybody without their knowledge or use Google's domain-specific search to track mentions of a company, product or person in the twittersphere. Whoa!

Even with the security setting turned on, it seems like everything you've published previously remains in the RSS feed. No undo or delete? Double whoa! Steve Rubel, prominent pro blogger, had to publish a retraction on his blog after making a comment on Twitter that he later regretted and was unable to delete or undo. Steve calls for a mandatory undo/delete button on all social messaging, and he's right.

Don't get me wrong; some people love hanging it all out there for the world to see, and frankly, as long as there's a delete button somewhere or a preference I can change later, I'm usually hanging my life right out there with the other extroverts. But I'm betting that most Twitter users aren't as extroverted as me, and don't even realise how public and irretrievable their twitter stream is. Doh!

Bluepulse has a more sophisticated understanding of the balance between a user's need for privacy and extroversion.

  • Bluepulse associates each new user with a mobile phone number and requires that you verify via that mobile. Unless you want to send updates via SMS, anyone can create a Twitter ID without any verification.
  • If I ask you to add me as a friend on bluepulse, you can see my profile to help you decide whether I'm the sort of person you want to be friends with. But it doesn't go both ways - because I'm not yet a friend of yours, bluepulse won't let me see your profile unless you accept me. Twitter lets me see the profile and updates for anybody who hasn't thought to make their updates private in their Twitter settings.
  • Bluepulse doesn't publish your updates as an RSS feed available to anyone. Personally, I like that Twitter publishes my updates as an RSS feed, but I think that option should be turned off by default.
  • Bluepulse allows you to delete your messages, and soon, will allow you to delete the two previous 'pulses' (bluepulse for 'status') displayed on your page, for good measure.

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