Turning inner space into outer space

August 3, 2012

Suspension hurts Twitter's credibility

In the past few years, Twitter has become so ingrained in the culture of journalism that it has become almost indispensable.

When news breaks, reporters fall over each other trying to be the first to tweet it. Twitter is like the news wires of old — only public.

When a major event is developing in some war-torn part of the world where the media is muzzled, we rely on citizens to flock to Twitter to keep us up to date.

And even in the more mundane parts of our lives, Twitter is there to help. Kamloops RCMP, for example, recently issued a news release looking for help finding two children who ran away from home. Local media put their descriptions on Twitter and within minutes the kids were found.

Here is the tweet we got from Charkinzie:

@KamNews Thanks for the tip about the kids! We saw them and called police right after you tweeted – passed the kids on our bike ride.

But — as Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben would say — with great power comes great responsibility.

And so it was in the case of British journalist Guy Adams, whose Twitter account was suspended after he tweeted the email address of an NBC executive. Many Americans are outraged that the network gives them only delayed coverage of the London Games, and Adams suggested they let the NBC executive know how they feel.

Twitter alerted NBC and invited them to file a complaint, which they did — on the grounds that the executive’s privacy was violated. Twitter responded with the suspension.

After widespread criticism, Twitter reinstated Adams’ account and apologized. It was the right thing to do, especially since the privacy policy was not actually violated — it should only have come into play if the email address were not already public, which it is.

A bigger issue, though, is the reliance that a free press has on a private company. Twitter is a business looking to make a profit. The company has a deal with NBC on the Olympics, and so could be expected to be sensitive to any criticism that would hurt its bottom line.

Imagine if email were “owned” by someone. Imagine that owner not allowing you to use email of any kind because of something you wrote. It is, in fact, unimaginable.

Twitter is a great service, but it is not quite the service we need. Ideally, it would be an internet protocol just like email, hypertext and file transfer. Efforts in that direction are taking place — one being, which bills itself as an open source, federated alternative to Twitter.

The trouble is that few people know about the alternatives, let alone use them. But if Twitter continues to abuse its power, a lot more eyes could be opened. Good will takes a long time to build, but only a short time to lose. If the people at Twitter don’t think users will abandon them, all we have to do is remind them of the tumbleweeds currently blowing through Myspace.