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The blogged wandering of Robert W. Anderson

Don’t ignore the Twitter user contracts

On the Friday Gillmor Gang, we discussed a decentralized Twitter.  It was both constructive and sometimes contentious.

Chris Saad discussed his idea (GetPingd) — an interesting approach that got short shrift on the call.  Bob Lee had some idea on how to do more with Jabber.

A couple more things (some of which I articulated on the call).

Twitter is not micro-blogging.  It can be used for micro-blogging, but it is a different animal completely.  It isn’t instant-messaging either, though it is used for that a lot.  As a result, if you are trying to improve it — or replace it — don’t try to force it into these other paradigms.  

Why do I say this isn’t just micro-blogging or IM?  Look at the user contracts:

  • Blogging has a simple Subscribe/Unsubscribe contract.  Twitter has block / track / direct messages (and soon filter).
  • IM generally has a friend approval mechanism to receive IM’s.  That is if you want updates from me through IM, I have to say it is OK.  Twitter allows this “private updates” feature, but the default is open.

Don’t try to architect a better Twitter by ignoring these contracts — your service will fail.

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    Melanie wrote @ May 12th, 2008 at 8:33 am

Who are you to state what it is or is not? To say that it’s NOT microblogging? I don’t recall a vote on this among all users? What I do know is this: Twitter users are doing all kinds of things with it. And none of them conform to one given model.

One thing I have noted about discussions like this is how many, many, many users have expressed outrage at those who deign to define what Twitter IS and IS not – via objective language. Prefacing your statement above with “I think” or “my friends think” would be more productive than stating “Twitter is/is not” given the lack of collective agreement on such matters. I remember in the early days when the mainstream started blogging. They, too, had a lot of ideas what blogging was and was not. It was enormously amusing to watch as people debated highly subjective arguments using objective terms. Democracy won out and the blogosphere defined itself in its own highly differentiated and diverse terms. The best part of this was the discovery (for some) that blogs were not a “genre” of writing but a tool with its own set of parameters. That blogs could reflect ANY genre of writing – from business to personal and academic or artistic. So now we have all kinds of different blogs – mommy blogs, political blogs, academic blogs, news blogs, business blogs. They aren’t necessarily “personal” in tone, either.

I have my own personal views on how I wish to use it. I – me – not you – not everybody else. I don’t believe in telling others how they should or should not use things. I’m up for discussion about what’s productive or unproductive and certainly have strong views about use but I never state on global terms. The designers of these systems may well be able to say “this is what we made it for” but even this may change depending on how users define its use.

When we speak of “abiding” by contracts we should also talk about the nature of those contracts. What’s needed are user contracts – defined by the user. Or some spot in our profile where we can define our own terms of use. I’ve created two such documents of my own to speak to the absence of user-specified values, preferences and policies.

A tumblr notes blog for my Twittering:

My personal social media policy:

There’s also:

    Melanie wrote @ May 12th, 2008 at 8:42 am

Sorry, let me rephrase that: not “who are you to say” — which promotes the idea of authorizing viewpoints according to credentials. What I should have said is, who or what defined what Twitter is?

Here are two descriptions from the Twitter website:

“Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?”

Here’s a definition from wikipedia:

“Twitter is a free social networking and micro-blogging service that allows users to send “updates” (or “tweets”; text-based posts, up to 140 characters long) to the Twitter website, via short message service (e.g. on a cell phone), instant messaging, or a third-party application such as Twitterrific or Facebook.”

    Robert W. Anderson wrote @ May 12th, 2008 at 9:08 am


Thanks for your comments. One thing is clear: people are very passionate about Twitter.

When your comment arrived in my email, my immediate thought was, “what?, didn’t I say ‘not just microblogging'”. But I guess I edited that out. Apologies for not being clear. I’m not trying to tell people what it is, but suggesting that to say it is just short blog posts is leaving out a major part of Twitter.

In terms of the user contracts, you make a good point about user’s defining these, but in practice today, user’s adopt and accept the TOS of the service and then expect the functionality to define these contracts.

I will take a look at your posts.


    Melanie wrote @ May 12th, 2008 at 9:16 am

I get what you’re saying and agree. When we sign up for something we shouldn’t be surprised by things we didn’t actually read about. This is why I ask my students how much they know about Facebook. I then state points from the TOS to see how much they actually know and the response is generally “no, I didn’t know that! They should tell us that” to which I reply, “they do tell you, in the terms of service you agree to. if you don’t read it, is that their fault?”

But there is a position beyond the above. The position of seeing oneself as a stakeholder in the systems in which we participate. Especially when these systems define themselves as “beta” … if this is all a big experiment and we are the subjects – we ought to have a voice.

Right now, I’d argue that companies begin with the most self interested top down models they can and wait and see how much of it we’ll tolerate. If we rise our voices in outrage they are often compelled to make minor changes. As Facebook has. But if we don’t say anything, they benefit from our silence and apathy.

Worst of all, we become complicit in the proliferation and design of bad systems. I tend to blame the current apathy on differences between traditional early adopters (critical approach to systems, feeling of being stakeholders/participants) and early majority/late majority (uncritical adoption, “consumer” rather than participant, compliance, little feeling of entitlement to redefine a system).

    Robert W. Anderson wrote @ May 12th, 2008 at 9:42 am

I generally agree with you, the TOS are rarely read by people and even those that appear to favor the user have an escape clause that allows the terms to change with no notice.

I have written about that a bit, see .

This comes up constantly in the “who owns your data” FAQs of services. “Why, of course, you own your data (unless we change the terms of service and assert that you don’t own your data).” Of course that may be a bad example, because the users do own their own data. The Attention Trust asserted this and nobody ever successfully argued against it.

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