Twitter and Privacy: History Never Retweets

Ever had a case of the *tipsy tweets*?

You know what I’m talking about. The type of tweets you’d never post to Twitter sober but that seem highly amusing after a couple of alcoholic beverages. The ones you rush to delete on Monday morning in a coffee-induced panic when you remember what or who you tweeted. Yeah those.

Well, the next time your fingertip hovers over the send button after you’ve had a few, you might want to think twice about letting it make contact with the keyboard.

It turns out that the Library of Congress has decided to digitally archive EVERY public tweet that has been posted to Twitter since the site launched in 2006. With 50 million tweets processed by Twitter every day, that adds up to billions of messages.

The Announcement

The news came in mid April, first via the Library of Congress’s own Twitter account and then via public announcement during Twitter’s first Chirp conference for developers. This was followed up by blog posts from both the Library and Twitter.

Why Archive Tweets?

So why the interest in digitally archiving tweets and is it really necessary? Staff at the Library of Congress think so:

“Twitter is part of the historical record of communication, news reporting, and social trends – all of which complement the Library’s existing cultural heritage collections.  It is a direct record of important events such as the 2008 U.S. presidential election or the *Green Revolution* in Iran. It also serves as a news feed with minute-by-minute headlines from major news sources such as Reuters, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

At the same time, it is a platform for citizen journalism with many significant events being first reported by eyewitnesses,” said Matt Raymond, the Library of Congress’s Director of Communications.

“Individually tweets might seem insignificant, but viewed in the aggregate, they can be a resource for future generations to understand life in the 21st century.”

Don’t Panic

Now before you panic about your entire Twitter history being laid bare to a grubby public, you should know that there are some protections in place.

Twitter has insisted there be at least a six-month window between the original date of a tweet and its date of availability for internal library use, non-commercial research, public display and preservation by the Library of Congress. Private account information and deleted tweets will not be part of the archive. Neither will linked information such as pictures and URLs.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington also doesn’t see a problem with it:

“I think folks understand that whatever they post on Twitter is meant to be searchable”, says their senior counsel John Verdi.

“I don’t see a big issue here.”

That might change, he says, if the US government tried to identify individuals through their tweets or by cross checking user tweets with their information from other federal databases.

Personally, I can see this happening unless further protections are put in place. It’s probably happening every day.

Gift Wrapped

It’s important to note that the Library did not purchase the archive. It was gifted from Twitter and the original legal document outlining the donation [PDF link] is publicly available via PDF.

“Recently, the Library of Congress signaled to us that the public tweets we have all been creating over the years are important and worthy of preservation. Since Twitter began, billions of tweets have been created”, says Twitter co-founder Biz Stone in their official blog post about the donation:

“Today, fifty-five million tweets a day are sent to Twitter and that number is climbing sharply. A tiny percentage of accounts are protected but most of these tweets are created with the intent that they will be publicly available. Over the years, tweets have become part of significant global events around the world – from historic elections to devastating disasters.”

“It is our pleasure to donate access to the entire archive of public Tweets to the Library of Congress for preservation and research.”

About the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States and it is the largest library in the world, regularly researched by government staff, law enforcement agencies, law firms, authors, scholars, scientists, students and academics. The Library receives more than 1.75 million readers and visitors annually and employs a staff of more than 3,600. According to Twitter, it’s a logical home for their archive.

What Does it All Mean?

So with billions of tweets added to the federal archive, how can we expect the data to be used? With Twitter’s entire history archived, it shouldn’t be long before we see tweets being used as evidence in criminal trials and various lawsuits.

Tweets have already been cited in defamation cases such as the one between 25 year-old Chicago resident Amanda Bonnen and her landlord, Horizon Group Management LLC. Following a disagreement with Horizon Group about mold allegedly found in her apartment, Bonnen posted on her public Twitter account:

“Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s okay”, to which Horizon Group responded with a defamation case to the tune of USD 50,000.

Although a Google-cache of her now deactivated account shows she had just 17 followers, Horizon claimed Bonnen’s tweet severely damaged their good name because it was published “worldwide”. Ironically, the publicity the case received probably did more damage to Horizon’s public image than Bonnen’s limited tweet. The case was thrown out due to lack of specific context in the tweet, but it does set an interesting precedent for other potential cases.

Whatever the legal and privacy implications, knowing your tweets are being preserved for historical significance and stored in the same building as priceless documents like the Declaration of Independence, should be somewhat humbling.

Who knows, future generations may one day point to your “OMG you guys! @justinbieber just walked into @starbucks!” tweet with the same awe reserved for George Washington’s copy of the US Constitution.

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Twitter to Become Your Online GPS

This week Twitter announced a new feature for twitter.com and mobile.twitter.com called Twitter Places.

The idea is to allow users to tag their Tweets with their specific location, acting like an online GPS of sorts. The geo-location data is made possible with the help of Twitter partners TomTom (manufacturer of in-car GPS navigation systems) and Localeze (a search marketing firm specializing in local search).

Apart from tweeting your own location, the new feature allows you to click a Twitter Place within a Tweet to see recent Tweets from a particular location. Users of geo-social networking services Foursquare and Gowalla will be excited, because the new feature now integrates with these services. If you click on a registered Twitter Place, not only will you see standard tweets from that location, but you’ll also see recent check-ins from Foursquare and Gowalla.

The timing of Twitter’s new feature launch deliberately coincided with the kick off of the World Cup, to encourage people to tweet from and view tweets from World Cup stadiums in South Africa. From the official blog post about the launch:

“When turning to Twitter to keep up with the current game, it helps to know where a Tweet is coming from – is that person watching the game on TV or is he actually in the stadium? To help answer that question, we’re excited to announce Twitter Places”

Unfortunately, Twitter engineers did not account for the popularity of such a feature during a major sporting event and demand actually crashed their own servers for a few hours this week. More about that in another post.

Twitter Places is designed to work with the existing “Tweet with your location” functionality. Instructions for activating Twitter Places using the location function can be found in Twitter’s Help Center.

The new feature will be rolling out to users in 65 countries this week. You’ll know the feature is activated in your country when you see the “Add your location” link below the Tweet box when you’re logged in at Twitter.com

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The Ability to Twitter From @anywhere

At the recent SXSW Conference, Twitter Co Founder Ev Williams announced a major framework they have in the pipeline called @anywhere.

The idea sprouted from the difficulty people have when they browse web sites and want to follow particular persons or businesses they come across on Twitter. At the moment, if you want to do this, unless there is an obvious “Follow me on Twitter” link, you need to conduct a search for the person or business on Twitter, locate their account and then login to your Twitter account to add them.

@anywhere will apparently enable web surfers to interact and follow people directly from their web sites with a single click. From the official blog post :

“Soon, sites many of us visit every day will be able to recreate these open, engaging interactions providing a new layer of value for visitors without sending them to Twitter.com…

When we’re ready to launch, initial participating sites will include Amazon, AdAge, Bing, Citysearch, Digg, eBay, The Huffington Post, Meebo, MSNBC.com, The New York Times, Salesforce.com, Yahoo!, and YouTube. Imagine being able to follow a New York Times journalist directly from her byline, tweet about a video without leaving YouTube, and discover new Twitter accounts while visiting the Yahoo! home page…”

Participating site owners won’t need an API to make this happen either – apparently @anywhere will run via a few lines of javascript added to their HTML code. Already, 13 of the biggest web players have signed up for @anywhere, including sites like Amazon, Bing, Yahoo! and YouTube.

No launch date has been announced yet, but Twitter’s blog hints it will be *soon*.

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Twitter Says Yahoo! to a Larger Audience

Yahoo and Twitter announced a partnership today that will see Twitter provide Yahoo with access to their full tweet feed, nicknamed The Firehose.

The deal will result in tweets appearing in Yahoo Search as well as other Yahoo properties such as the Yahoo Homepage, Yahoo Mail and Yahoo Sports. Yahoo will also integrate Twitter clients into their various applications so that Twitter users can tweet from within the Yahoo network.

The partnership announcement was delivered to media with an embargo, but within a few hours the story broke on the blogosphere and Yahoo pretty much gave the game away with the *clues* they posted on Twitter.

With a worldwide audience of 600 million, Yahoo offers Twitter significant exposure to add to their existing partnerships with the other major search giants Bing and Google.

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Google Takes a “Buzz” Saw to Twitter

We’ve all been expecting it, but today was the day Google decided to roll out their answer to Twitter: Google Buzz.

I haven’t had much of a play with it yet, but the fact that it’s integrated with Gmail will probably make it very popular, very quickly.

From the official Google Blog post:

“Google Buzz is a new way to start conversations about the things you find interesting. It’s built right into Gmail, so you don’t have to peck out an entirely new set of friends from scratch – it just works. If you think about it, there’s always been a big social network underlying Gmail. Buzz brings this network to the surface by automatically setting you up to follow the people you email and chat with the most.

We focused on building an easy-to-use sharing experience that richly integrates photos, videos and links, and makes it easy to share publicly or privately (so you don’t have to use different tools to share with different audiences). Plus, Buzz integrates tightly with your existing Gmail inbox, so you’re sure to see the stuff that matters most as it happens in real time.”

I plan to write a detailed article about Google Buzz, but here’s a quick run down of the main features:

  • Runs within Gmail
  • Embeds images
  • Embeds inline video
  • Emails status updates
  • Automatically works on mobiles without 3rd party applications
  • Connects to Picasa, Flickr & Twitter
  • No 140 character limit

It’s interesting that it integrates with Twitter. That suggests a deal has been done behind closed doors to ensure both products don’t compete head to head, but Twitter may still lose some audience now that Gmail offers both chat and a link sharing tool.

In some ways, it’s more like Stumble Upon in that it’s a more powerful tool for sharing links, videos and images than Twitter is. But because it operates within Gmail, I’m concerned that much of the conversation will be lost between email threads. We’ll have to wait and see.

I for one won’t be abandoning Twitter in a hurry.

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