SOIS PhD student Nick Proferes and I have published a chapter in the new book Twitter and Society, edited by Katrin Weller, Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess, Merja Mahrt, and Cornelius Puschmann. Our contribution is “Privacy on Twitter, Twitter on Privacy”. Here’s our introduction:
“What are you doing right now?” is the compelling question that greeted users for years at the website, Twitter.com. Twitter’s prompt served as the most prominently displayed instructional message on the homepage that suggested to individuals how they should use the service, and while some simply answer the simple prompt with an equally simple (and often mundane) description of their current activities, most largely ignore the question, and instead find a “myriad ways to share pretty much anything they wanted, be it information, relationships, entertainment, citizen journalism, and beyond” (Dybwad, 2009, para. 2). This sharing of “information, relationships, entertainment, citizen journalism, and beyond” has made Twitter a cultural phenomenon. Yet, as Twitter’s popularity increases, so do privacy concerns with regard to personal or sensitive information shared by users and stored on the platform. The unauthorised sharing or misuse of personal information can result in harm to one’s reputation (Solove, 2007), impact employment (Weiss, 2006), lead to identity theft, or fuel various forms of discrimination (Lyon, 2003). In contrast to the granular privacy controls provided by Facebook and Google+, Twitter offers a simple binary in terms of privacy control: either a user’s Twitter activity is public to everyone, or restricted, requiring authorisation before access (to all tweets) is granted to particular users. Since Twitter’s default privacy setting is that all messages are public—and the simple binary of public versus restricted accounts offers little room for ambiguity—arguments are commonly made that the 90% of users of the service who maintain public account settings (see Moore, 2009) have minimal expectations of privacy (Crovitz, 2011), and as a result, deserve little consideration in terms of possible privacy harms (Fitzpatrick, 2012). Seen this way, Twitter offers little in terms of large-scale privacy concerns or controversies.
This chapter, however, will argue that there are justifiable concerns over privacy on Twitter. While the technical controls which Twitter provides appear to provide simple and clear means for users to manage their information flows, personal and sensitive information routinely is shared—and leaked—beyond users’ intended audience, while Twitter’s own data security and data-sharing practices add new threats to user privacy. Thus, privacy on Twitter is a clear and present issue. Additionally, Twitter’s own organisational rhetoric regarding the “ephemerality” of the platform shapes users’ expectations of privacy, increasing the likelihood of the sharing of personal and sensitive information. Interrogating the very language Twitter uses to describe itself suggests that the majority of its own rhetoric focuses on the real-time nature of the communication exchange that Twitter provides, while often remaining silent or ambiguous about the permanence of tweets, and the privacy threats such permanence brings. Thus, examining Twitter on privacy reveals how its own rhetoric about a false ephemerality of tweets intensifies the overall privacy concerns of the platform.