Twitter is an invaluable source for real-time information and building communities through conversations, but for the uninitiated, it’s still a mystery.
On Twitter, there is no coddling the new people who sign up for the service. And when public tweets are suddenly picked up by major media outlets, confusion can ensue.
On Wednesday, Twitter user @steenfox set out to rouse conversation about a very serious and personal topic. “What were you wearing when you were [sexually] assaulted?” she asked. Buzzfeed picked up the conversation and put together a list of the public responses.
The original poster (@steenfox) and advocates across the Internet were outraged at Buzzfeed’s seemingly crass aggregation, and it sparked a conversation about whether or not it’s okay to publish public tweets.
The legality is cut and dry—yes, publications can embed your public tweets. Whether or not they should is another question entirely.
Identifying victims of sexual assault has always been a journalistic gray area; publications rarely identify victims of rape unless the victim submits their approval. While Buzzfeed claims the author asked for permission before posting all the responses, the original poster says she didn’t.
This is not the first time a publication has come under fire for posting public tweets. After the presidential election in 2012, Jezebel rounded up a list of racist tweets sent from teenagers around the country criticizing President Obama and calling him inappropriate names. Eventually the publication went one step further and outed the students by contacting their schools to ask about the racist tweets, a move that many people said crossed the line.
After the Buzzfeed article was published, a handful of people were confused as to why their post was used at all. The publication eventually removed three tweets that were included in the original post. Continued confusion and discourse over posting public tweets reveals a problem Twitter has yet to solve: It has a user base that misunderstands the tools at hand, and it’s both the company’s and community’s job to better educate new users how, exactly, they tweet.
No, It’s Not Obvious
On Facebook, which is still the world’s most popular social network, you’re encouraged to add friends that you know personally, and grow your community privately by sharing personal information to a relatively small network of people you already know. You can tailor your privacy settings to only allow friends and family to see your posts and comments, or you can have a public page from which publications can embed status updates.
With over one billion users, Facebook’s growth is, in part, due to the simplicity of the social network. It’s about friends, photos, and statuses—mini diaries of your life. The user interface is straightforward: You make friends and you share stuff with them.
When a new user signs up for Twitter, she gets suggestions on whom to follow; instead of friends or family, it’s celebrities like Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian. And chances are, if you follow a celebrity, they won’t follow you back.
The average active Twitter user has just 61 followers, compared to the 200 friends an average Facebook user has. But Facebook is a contained, controlled environment: You decide who reads and sees your information, for the most part. Twitter, by contrast, seems arbitrary—the handful of people you follow and who follow you back starts with a rather small pool, but actually has endless reach.
Twitter wants to be “the Internet’s town square,” but it doesn’t do a good job communicating what, exactly, that means, or how people should use it.
In traditional town squares, community members congregate. It’s a place for the exchange of ideas, protests, and city meet ups. In some cases, like protests in Ukraine, news literally happens on the town square, which then makes its way to Twitter timelines everywhere.
Twitter isn’t for everyone, but that’s the goal. In the beginning, the social network attracted early adopters and super users that got it. The tools and community were then built by those same people. The hashtag, for instance, was created by a user, not the company. The people who use it regularly have even formed sub-communities on Twitter that lead to memes that only a handful of groups actually understand. (Weird Twitter, anyone?)
But Twitter still has issues evangelizing its services to the masses, which becomes a problem when folks tweet personal information thinking only their followers will see it. To its credit, Twitter’s “Discover” page helps new users navigate the waters, though it is still unclear how tweets are used, exactly.
See Also: Welcome To Twitter, Now What Can You Do?
In the company’s first post-IPO earnings call earlier this year, CEO Dick Costolo said Twitter is seeing slow growth, even amid increasing revenues. Despite its 241 million monthly active users, adding more hasn’t been easy. Perhaps it’s because the whole point of Twitter is still a mystery to so many people.
Even the company’s founders couldn’t agree on what Twitter is. According to the book Hatching Twitter, cofounders Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass and Ev Williams all had different visions for the company that eventually morphed into what Twitter is today—an amalgamation of status updates, breaking news, and memes.
How To Protect Your Privacy
The standard post setting on Twitter is public, but there are ways for users to maintain their privacy. You can make an account private by selecting “protect my tweets” under privacy settings; it prevents anyone who isn’t following you from reading your tweets. Once your account is private, you must approve all follower requests.
In recent months, Twitter has pushed its direct messaging product, a service that works just like other messaging apps, but posts are limited to Twitter’s traditional 140 characters. It’s impossible to message all users, however; Twitter requires users to mutually follower each other before messaging.
If Twitter were so obvious, we wouldn’t need articles like this one. We wouldn’t need writers to blogsplain the product, or post condescending subtweets about how people should know how to use it. Because it’s clear people don’t.
For Twitter to grow into the global town square it wants to be, its leaders will need to figure out how to better educate constituents on how to use the service. And hopefully, unsuspecting tweeters won’t have to request their post be removed from listicles because of a simple misunderstanding.
Image courtesy of dicophilo on Flickr.