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[ NNSquad ] Twitter's Rapid Reversal -- and the Rising Dilemma of "Public" vs. "Publicized"

Twitter's Rapid Reversal -- and the Rising Dilemma of "Public" vs. "Publicized"


By now you probably are well aware of what must have been one of the
fastest major policy reversals in the history of social networking,
when a few evenings ago, Twitter changed their definition of user
blocking, and in the face of an enormous outcry that became an
international news story within a matter of hours, announced that they
were for now reverting back to their original methodology.

There are a couple of rather obvious lessons here, and at least one
not so obvious lesson that is likely at least as important.

First, at Internet speeds, it's possible to lose years worth of user
love in a heartbeat, if you're seen as suddenly changing the rules in
a manner that your customers (users are customers, right?) feel in the
large to be antithetical to their interests.

Secondly, when you screw up, don't prolong the agony -- get in front
of the issue as fast as possible. When a mea culpa is in order, get
the sword out, make your proclamation, and correct the situation as
quickly as you can. Twitter's rapid response to a sudden crisis
(albeit of their own making) was indeed both wise and prudent.

But this leaves us with a gaping question -- how did Twitter so
grossly miscalculate the likely reactions to their policy change, and
so massively underestimate their impact?

I suspect that part of the answer involves understanding and
appreciating the issues of "public" vs. "publicized" (allow me to coin
the term "PvP" for short) in social networks -- a category of concerns
only now really coming into focus and discourse.'

"Public is public" -- you've likely seen me say this many times.  It
is foolhardy to assume that a public posting will be seen only in the
context in which it was originally made, or to pretend that a public
statement can somehow be effectively erased after the fact. The
so-called "right to be forgotten" -- that suggests trying to censor
information that has already been extant on the Web, either from
websites, search engines, or both, is entirely impractical and
potentially vastly dangerous to fundamental free speech rights and
more. Such anti-speech laws must be vigorously opposed.

Yet there is a difference between sending a posting out to the members
of a mailing list, or your followers on a social network -- vs. having
the same message blaring out of loudspeakers for all to hear on every
street corner of the planet.

The difference relates fundamentally to "discoverability" -- how
likely it is that any given posting will be seen or found beyond the
context in which it was originally made. In other words, simply
because a posting is publicly available to find in a search engine and
to read via a public URL, doesn't equate to purposely "publicizing"
that material beyond its original posting context.

There are many facets to this dilemma, and various aspects of them
apply to most social networks today, including Twitter, Facebook,
Google+, and others.

The aspect perhaps most relevant to the recent Twitter reversal
relates to an increasingly popular concept in social networking,
amounting to the idea that it's acceptable -- even desirable -- to
present different logged-in users, and non-logged-in observers,
completely disparate views of the same underlying discussion threads,
streams, or user status states.

So, for example, logged-in user A may see a different "public" stream
of discussion than that observed by logged-in user B, and
non-logged-in C may see something different in other ways -- in some
cases actually even more complete than what A or B might be seeing,
depending on possible user blocking relationships between B and A.

This takes us to the heart of the Twitter controversy. Under their now
aborted changes, blocking a user would have only prevented the
blocking party from seeing what the blocked party was saying -- the
latter would be able to continue publicly harassing the blocker -- and
having such remarks seen by everyone who would have seen them
previously -- except the party who triggered the ersatz block itself.
This situation was quite reasonably described by critics as being
roughly equivalent to being offered a blindfold and earplugs to deal
with someone covering your home with graffiti, or, to characterize it
a different way, "Lie back and think of England [go ahead, look it
up!] ...

Supporters of Twitter's changes argued that blocking a user never
really stopped them from seeing your public postings anyway, and that
not informing someone that they were blocked would help prevent
possible reprisals from the blocked party (on the theory that they
wouldn't catch on to the fact that they were blocked).

But most any battered woman is likely to tell you that assuming
harassers are stupid, or that ignoring them is a solution -- is
utterly and perhaps lethally wrong.

It is true however that those public postings would still be visible
if you went out looking for them. But the inability to directly
associate with them, within the context of the specific streams and
threads themselves, is still highly significant once blocking has been

There's a slippery slope aspect to all this as well in the broader
social networking context.

Once you accept the proposition that it's OK to not inform someone
that they've been blocked, and to present them with a version of a
stream or thread that is actually more limited than that seen by other
users or even the public, it becomes much more acceptable to spread
this mindset into other areas.

User A may not realize that the comments they posted on page B are
only visible to A, and not to anyone else (unless A logs out and
inspects the page from that vantage point) -- or that comments written
by A and queued for moderation, or rejected by moderators, may still
appear to logged-in A as if they are publicly viewable, even though
they are not yet (or never may be).

The practicality of such approaches when attempting to manage large
social networks seem clear enough, but the resulting dilemmas are
arguably ethically dubious at best.

These conflicts become even more noteworthy as the concept of "public"
spreads into third-party contexts beyond the scope of original
postings, a situation I alluded to above.

When a posting made publicly to a set of followers becomes routinely
visible and highlighted to affinity and interest groups who are not
largely congruent with that original posting audience, the impact of
the posting itself can change in a fundamentally qualitative manner,
both unexpected and unwelcome from the standpoint of the posting

In essence, the public posting has now been publicized in a place and
manner not in accordance with the poster's original intentions.

By analogy, if you went looking for a job by posting your information
publicly on a tech job website, you probably wouldn't want that
information crossposted to a publicly available sex magazine (or
perhaps you would, but the point is that you likely don't want the job
website to perform that crossposting without your explicit

As you can see, the entire "public vs. publicized" arena is nontrivial
to grasp in its scope, and I can really only scrape the surface here

But the next time you hear discussions about public information on the
Web, particularly in relation to social networks, the next time you
hear someone say "public is public" (including me!), I urge you to
consider the fascinatingly complex maze of twisty passages that reside
between public and publicized, and how best we may find our way
through them without the use of magic wands or magic words [insert
"XYZZY" joke here? Naw ...]

Be seeing you.

Disclaimer: I'm a consultant to Google. My postings are speaking only 
for myself, not for them.
 - - -
Lauren Weinstein (lauren@vortex.com): http://www.vortex.com/lauren 
Co-Founder: People For Internet Responsibility: http://www.pfir.org/pfir-info
 - Network Neutrality Squad: http://www.nnsquad.org 
 - PRIVACY Forum: http://www.vortex.com/privacy-info
Member: ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Lauren's Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com
Google+: http://google.com/+LaurenWeinstein 
Twitter: http://twitter.com/laurenweinstein
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800 / Skype: vortex.com

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