#twitterfail ethics & economics

Update 415p EST: Twitter reinstated Guy Adams account and sent him essentially a form letter and then Twitter’s general counsel, Alex Macgillivray (@amac) wrote a post that did apologize and did discuss the need for trust but still leads to the impression that Adams violated Twitter’s terms of service, which I do not believe happened (he revealed a *public* address; he was not given the opportunity to act on the complaint). It also makes a rather quisling argument that business emails could have personal use; if that’s the case, then Twitter’s policy would forbid the sharing of all email addresses, which would be silly.

In this paragraph, Macgillevray points to precisely where the church/state line I refer to in the post below should be drawn:

That said, we want to apologize for the part of this story that we did mess up. The team working closely with NBC around our Olympics partnership did proactively identify a Tweet that was in violation of the Twitter Rules and encouraged them to file a support ticket with our Trust and Safety team to report the violation, as has now been reported publicly. Our Trust and Safety team did not know that part of the story and acted on the report as they would any other.

So the commercial team working with a business partner acted on behalf of that partner’s interests rather than in the interests of the users and in the interests of Twitter as an open, reliable, and trustworthy platform.


I am glad that Twitter recanted and reinstated Adams. But the discussion has not gone far enough. What Macgillevray apologizes for is Twitter employees actively monitoring a user’s content rather than waiting for a complaint. That’s too limited a scope. We still need to discuss the principles under which a platform operates and the trust it requires.

My earlier post:

* * *

Twitter is going to have to learn the lesson that newspapers had to learn when they started accepting advertising: that when trust is your asset, you must run your service and your business according to principles of trust. Newspapers built church/state walls to demonstrate that they could not be bought by sponsors’ influence. Twitter needs that wall. Every tech company fancying itself a platform does. Or it can’t be trusted and won’t be used and will lose value. Those are the economics of trust.

Twitter’s killing of a journalist’s account threatens to be a defining moment for the company, as Dan Gillmor warned. The details are nearly meaningless. Independent writer Guy Adams was very critical of NBC’s coverage of the Olympics (as I have been and many have been, using #nbcfail as our gathering place and megaphone). Adams published the corporate email address of NBC Olympics chief Gary Zenkel and then Twitter killed his account. But the email address was hardly private — it had been published online and follows NBC format: [email protected] Adams was not informed of the complaint and given the opportunity to delete the tweet, as Twitter’s rules require. Indeed, Adams found out that Twitter initiated the complaint, not NBC. And what’s the harm, really, to NBC: that its viewers can talk to them? NBC should welcome that. And the furor certainly spread Zenkel’s email far wider than any tweet.

No, the real issue here is that Twitter entered a business deal with NBC and its parent, Comcast, for the Olympics. That, in Adams’ word, puts NBC and Twitter in cahoots with each other. So now do other users have to worry about biting the hand that feeds Twitter?

I asked Twitter repeatedly for what it has to say about this and held off writing this post until I gave up on getting a response. I still hold hope that Twitter will come to its senses, recant, restore Adams’ account, apologize, and learn a lesson.

For this incident itself is trivial, the fight frivolous. What difference does it make to the world if we complain about NBC’s tape delays and commentators’ ignorance?

But Twitter is more than that. It is a platform. It is a platform that has been used by revolutionaries to communicate and coordinate and conspire and change the world. It is a platform that is used by journalists to learn and spread the news. If it is a platform it should be used by anyone for any purpose, none prescribed or prohibited by Twitter. That is the definition of a platform.

In political matters, Twitter has behaved honorably. It famously delayed a maintenance shutdown so as not to cut off communication at a crucial moment in the Arab Spring. It has fought government subpoenas to get information on tweeters in protests and regarding Wikileaks.

But now in business matters, it acts in a suspect manner and that is worrying for Twitter and moreso for its users.

Twitter needs to decide on, declare, and live by principles. I believe it needs to prove to us that it is not beholden to sponsors any more than it is to governments. It must fight for our trust or it will lose its value to us (and its shareholders). This is why Google was wise to decree that it should not be evil. It is a good business decision.

Now I fully understand the irony of my beginning this post using newspapers and journalism as a model. We in my industry have squandered our trust, not so much through direct advertiser influence but through short-sighted economic thinking: pandering to the perceived mass — with celebrity, sensationalism, and the view from nowhere — to build sales and traffic over substance; devaluing our product by cutting the wrong things when faced with competitive pressures; lacking the strategic vision that would carry journalism into the digital economy. This is a case of do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do, I’m afraid.

In a Twitter discussion this morning, Dave Winer and I parried on whether the tech industry needs to become the journalism industry or whether the journalism industry needs to become the tech industry. I’m not sure where that lands. I do see tech companies — Twitter, Tumblr, Google, Facebook, and more — hiring journalists. I see journalists using and relying on — perhaps too much — these companies. I see an opportunity for them to work together to set a line where we can build a new wall between church and state, between business and trust, by establishing principles that platforms — indeed, the internet itself — must live by.

I have nothing whatsoever against making business and journalism businesses. I believe they must be businesses to be sustainable. But they must be responsible businesses. They must learn where their value truly lies. That is in trust. Squander that trust and you lose it all.

Twitter has another moment to learn and then teach that lesson. Please.

  • geoff1

    oh god, the guy posted a private email on twitter and journalists get the vapors. sheesh. then we have some journalists saying, “i can google his name and find his email.” IT’S NOT IN TWITTERS EULA THAT TWITTER HAS TO GOOGLE THE GUYS NAME FIRST. the guy lives in the UK, gets the olympics live, and he’s bitching about NBC? huh? hey guy adams, NBC paid almost $2 billion and your ego thought that you could change their programming? Really dude, you thought that? NBC has been working on this Olympics SINCE THIS WAS ANNOUNCED and you thought by posting a private email on twitter was going to change that? Again…really? Calm the F down and take your lumps in public and in the future, DO NOT POST PRIVATE WORK EMAILS when it clearly says in twitters EULA, not do do that. Oy vey. This whole thing has gotten journalists in such “uproar” it’s comical.

    • Ric

      Work emails are not “private” by definition; plus it was available elsewhere on the Web already so didn’t break Twitter’s rules. This is about Twitter dancing to NBC’s music …

      • geoff1

        but they are private by twitter’s definition. IT DOES NOT MATTER if it was available on the web. IT DID break twitter’s rules. Why is this so hard for figure out? AGAIN, DO NOT POST someone’s work email on twitter and expect pleasant things to happen to you. Twitter warned the guy because his inbox might go from 14 non-read emails to 1400 non-read emails. Ever think about that? I’d fucking complain to if I was NBC. The ego of the guy thinking he could change programming when it’s been worked out for months, if not years. Sheesh.

        • Private? Do you understand the meaning of that word? Private implies that you can’t just google it and get it from Site after site. A work email is NOT private. Jesus. What do you two not get from this?

        • CK

          It does matter that it was available on the web – Twitter rules:

          If information was previously posted or displayed elsewhere on the Internet prior to being put on Twitter, it is not a violation of this policy.

      • danbloom

        ric Guy Adams DID publish the email address of NBC and that is a NO-NO according to Twitter rules. yes or no? private schmicate, the rules say you do not publish emails period. Guy is trying to rationalize this by saying well gosh anyione could google his name to fidn the eamik so why is it private? wrong, Guy. the rules say no emails given out. you crossed the line. stop crying

    • Also, “the guy” actually lives and works in the US for a UK publication.

    • Conor Mulhern

      “the guy lives in the UK, gets the olympics live, and he’s bitching about NBC?”

      Do you think US journalists would be ‘bitching’ about the BBC if they had cut a tribute to American victims of terrorism?

      To suggest this is simply a EULA problem ignores many of the issues this decision has highlighted. And for the record, I live in the UK, and I was less than impressed with some of NBC’s decisions.

  • geoff1

    btw, Google and FB have already hired journalists so that’s a moot pt.

  • Jeff,

    The news business hasn’t squandered just trust, but also a huge potential lead in this space. Tech is hard to pull off well (remember how common the Fail Whale was?); you don’t make tech innovations when that function is relegated to “the guys in IT” and a few people who’d absorbed the HTML bookshelf in the mid-90s (and I say that in full admission that I was one of those HTML-slingers).

    In other words, if news had risen to the challenge, even as late as the early 2000s, this would be a very different discussion. But it isn’t.

    I think the real path to success, now that Twitter and others have build viable platforms, is, as you suggest, for the tech companies to realize that they’ve inherited the same ethical business issues that journalism wrestled with for most of the 20th century.

    Yes there are journalist working at these companies. Now it’s time for journalists and others who care deeply about news and productive community conversations to move into leadership positions at the tech leaders.

  • mariolosasso

    Jeff, Do you ever get tired of expecting for profit corporations to do the “right” thing only to have them do the “profitable” thing over and over and over?

    Regardless of Twitter’s use durring the Arab spring, its stake holders earned nothing from that. They got a nice chunk of change for the olympics. They are not in this for trust and the greater good. Its money. Its always money.

    • Reports are though that no money exchanged hands as part of this deal: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/twitter/9440137/London-Olympics-2012-Twitter-alerted-NBC-to-British-journalists-critical-tweets.html

      They were just hoping this deal will be a good PR move. Unfortunately, that seems it has backfired. I love Twitter but they need to admit their mistake on this one.

      • mariolosasso

        Yes no money may have changed hands, but every other break you get a 15 second plug for twitter. Those commercials are worth a dollar figure. Thats advertising twitter has never had before.

        I dont consider it a bad PR move because no one cares except for a small portion of the internet elite. I would bet if you round up the coverage that this gets on any broadcast news program, it doesnt equal the coverage it gets on TWiG combined.

  • Terrific post, thanks for sharing your thoughts Jeff.

  • danbloom

    Guy Adams he DID publish the eamil address of NBC and that is a NO-NO according to Twitter rules. yes or no?

    • No. It isn’t against Twitter rules. You would know that if you, well, read the whole story.

      • Track Zero

        Is the story more than 140 characters? Because that’s where I’ve been conditioned to stop reading.

  • danbloom

    I have noticed that recently TWITTER has become a bullying pulpit and an abuse platform unlike FACEBOOOK, where there are strict policies. Twittter has become the place to be a bully and abuse other and get away with it, just like online anonymous comments where people gang up on others. and Brits sorry to say are great at bullying and abuse. in their culture? I don’;t know. But Guy Adams erred. admit it Guy. i hope this is a big wake up call for Twitter and all tritter users. STOP abusing tweets. Guy has inadvwertently become a “hot tweet potato” yes , and scare quotes mine, but it’s his fault

  • danbloom

    Tuesday, July 31, 2012
    When Twitter users get abusive and resort to bulling in their tweets, they get suspended TEXT: from a message by the man with a PHD who was suspended for using Twitter in an abusive way. He wrote:

    Regarding my ongoing “suspension” from Twitter, which shut down my account after I published a message critical of @NAME.

    The site claims I broke its rules because I in a Tweet posted on Friday I called @NAME insane and schizophrenic, when in fact he is neither. In fact, he is a professional journalist and I was wrong to use abusive language when I do not even ”know” the man.
    My tweet was wrongheaded and abusive and contained language that one should not use lightly, which I did use lightly. For that I apologize and hope I can get my Twitter privileges back soon

    Plenty of people do agree that I broke said Twitter rules. And many have also pointed out that Twitter’s actions seem a bit rum, because the popular, but currently-not-very-lucrative site just so happens to be shite in my opinion.

    This evening, an ominous development: a Twitter message to me said it was the micro-blogging site – and @NAME – that was responsible for initiating the complaint that lead to my suspension in the first place.

    I’d be fascinated to hear how Twitter explain or justify this.

    In the meantime, I’d also quite like to get back on Twitter.

    The site’s “trust and safety” department has contacted me to explain how this can happen.

    “If you would like to request your account to be restored, please respond to this email and confirm that you’ve read and understood our rules,” reads their message.

  • Natalie

    And yet, I’ve has a user abusing myself and numerous others and despite complaints to twitter and even local authorities, they’ve done absolutely nothing!

  • Good points Jeff. My guess, though, is that there are some circumstances where you would consider it OK for Twitter to suspend an account or delete a tweet based on private info being released (I’m not saying that an email address is private, particularly in this case). True? Is there any release of info that would warrant this? Or can it be released on a private blog anyway so it doesn’t matter if it goes on Twitter? Thanks.

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  • digiphile

    Jeff, Twitter is a private company with a ToS. It’s not a public utility. You know Dave Winer well, who has argued for such a distributed, open system. No definition for platform that I am aware of includes its use for any purpose by anyone. Here’s Wikipedia on platforms, for reference’s sake: http://bit.ly/osV4j6 A platform is a thing — like Windows or Android or the Apple App Store. Sanctifying the idea of a “holy” platform just confuses the issue.

    Simply put, there *are* principles for use of Twitter’s platform. They’re in the Rules, Terms of Service & strictures around its API. In theory, that’s what the FTC would look at if there was a consumer complaint. Private companies are bound by the regulations of the FTC or FCC or other relevant regulatory bodies, along with their own rules, not whatever principles you or others wish to apply to them, even if those principles might seem more attractive.
    Yes, the corporate email address Adams tweeted was available online prior to the tweet if you knew how to find it in search. The question to ask privacy lawyers is whether a corporate email address is “private” or not. You and many other journalists are saying it isn’t, using the logic that because the nomenclature is standardized, it can be easily deduced.
    While I happen to believe that it being published online prior to the tweet means that it’s not a break in Twitter’ ToS, it’s not at all clear to me what the law says about corporate email addresses being private. It’s a somewhat fuzzy argument that because an address can be guessed, it is public, although I did “co-sign” Jack Shafer’s tweet making that assertion.

    • True, Twitter is not a public utility. However, they would be wise to think of themselves as one; because that’s how the public sees them (and what the public thinks matters more than what any institution thinks of itself).

      Twitter’s entire business model owes to the users and if those people demand a transparent list of behavioral expectations and due process when violations occur – not providing that can drive enough of them away to any of the dozens of competitors in a heartbeat.

  • kreylix

    This article implies the guy’s email address wasn’t an easy find on Google. http://searchengineland.com/nbc-olympic-executives-email-wasnt-widely-available-in-google-128973

  • Nancy Pope

    I’m shocked, SHOCKED to learn that a company has made a commercial decision. Alert the media!

  • Mike Larkin

    Great post, and good discussion, looking forward to hearing more from Mr. Jarvis on TWiG. Wednesday on TWiT.TV Live 1pm PDT, 4pm EDT

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  • Benjamin Friedland

    Just riding the wave here: want to make sure everyone’s checked out join.app.net. We (yes, I work there) are building a new real-time social feed that puts users and developers first. We believe that because the big social media companies are ad-supported, they act in ways that are hostile to their users and developers. We think there’s a better way. Thanks for listening.

  • EB

    Comcast bought NBC, they should also buy Twitter. THEN they can delay the tweets to match the delayed broadcast! I’m a genius.

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  • Come on, Jeff. Separation of church and state in newspapers? Once an article of faith, now a quaint conceit. And to the extent it has been followed, to what purpose? It’s not as if it’s the beginning of the end for printed dailies; it’s rapidly approaching the end of the end. Why would any 21st Century “platform” choose to emulate a medium rooted in a 17th century innovation (ie, moveable type) that is losing apace a critical mass of audience needed to sustain it? Twitter nor any other platform exists to indulge the vocational narcissism of journalists, whose prideful sanctimony and antipathy to business imperatives hardly lessens across the ages. (I’m a journalist who lost his rose-colored glasses a long time ago in the belief pragmatism is the better part of a remunerative livelihood, and I respect those business owners who take risks, are on the firing line 24/7 and create jobs for journalists who complain about those dastardly advertisers and platform owners who should just throw caution to the wind and let employees and customers call all the shots. Right.) The Olympics is no more news than any other sport; it’s show business. Yeah, I found it bizarre that NBC hewed to the conceit of a live telecast by having Mr. Costas open this evening’s prime time block by wondering in the teaser whether Mr. Phelps would break the all-time medals record, when anyone paying attention already knew that Phelps already had done just that. Is it so integral to my life that I was compelled to tweet some exec’s contact info to exhort others to harass him for crimes against humanity? No, thanks, I already have a life. I’ll leave such obsessive compulsions to Mr. Adams … and like-minded twits.

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  • MiM’s

    If evrybody leave Twitter, the problem is off !!!

  • Phil Forrest

    Bring back the “old” Usenet model for new social media.

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  • anamax

    Spike Lee tweeted the physical address of a “Zimmerman” in Sanford, Florida, claiming that it was where George Zimmerman lived. This info was not public.
    The result was death threats and the like to some folks who aren’t related to George Zimmerman.
    Yes, this was reported to Twitter via their official reporting channel for this stuff.
    Any guesses as to what happened to Spike Lee’s account?

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  • whitey


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  • ET

    As you discussed on TWIG – you are wrong Jeff. Twitter is a private company that doesn’t owe you anything. Developers may have helped twitter become what it is, but as you are so quick to point out all the time – the U.S. is all about free enterprise, public choice and hatred of government involvement. If twitter has done wrong, it will fail. If the regular twitter users don’t care about the change they will keep signing up and all your ranting won’t change it. The market will decide not me or you.

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