Twitter: a Member of the Big Brother Family?

On: October 12, 2008
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About Arno de Natris
Finished the Master in New Media in august 2009. See for mor details about me on


My first experience with Twitter was a kind of déjà-vu. I had seen something like this before, a few years ago. It was, I think, at a music festival. There was a big screen with a telephone number. You could send a text message to that number and a few seconds later it appeared on the screen. I noticed that people were not just sending messages to the screen, but they were communicating too. They sent messages to each other. It was a microblogging system with a big audience and because of the character limitation of the text messages, the comparison with Twitter as just a digital social network is made quickly.

On the other hand, there’s a big difference between the festival screen and Twitter: your computer. Birds tweet and for us, it’s just a sound. For the bird it’s not only the sound, but it’s a (one-)way of communication. The bird in your garden is broadcasting to all the birds in the neighbourhood. He (females don’t sing usually) sends messages to other birds. When you Twitter, you are a bird broadcasting messages. Here I don’t mean the messages you are typing for other Twitters, but I’m talking ‘data’. When I send a message, for example ‘frying an egg on the back of my overheated car’, the message ‘frying an egg on the back of my overheated car’ is just the tweet, the sound of the bird you other birds hear.

Checking the Privacy Policy of Twitter you’ll read:
‘When you visit the Site, our servers automatically record information that your browser sends whenever you visit a website (“Log Data” ). This Log Data may include information such as your IP address, browser type or the domain from which you are visiting, the web-pages you visit, the search terms you use, and any advertisements on which you click’.

Although this may deter you joining Twitter, things get worse. Your Tweets are worldwide visible as well. On several websites you can collect information about Twitter uses. For example, Twitter Stream Graphs shows you the latest Tweets that contain any word you fill in. The graphic shows you how many times the word is used. Below the graphic you can see who (or which Twitter) has used the word in which Tweet. Another search mechanism is TwitArcs. Jeff Clark, the creator:

‘It (TwitArcs) takes the latest 100 tweets for a twitter ID or term of interest and creates a list representation that has arcs connecting messages sent to the same users or that use the same primary term. You can click on the left side to load the tweets for a new user, on the right side to load the tweets for a specific term, and in the middle to visit the actual tweet.’

So, even for anyone who doesn’t have a Twitter account and therefore doesn’t have to reveal he is following you, you are leaving trails by using Twitter that can be interesting for many purposes.

In 1990, Gilles Deleuze explained that our society is changing into a society of control. Today’s capitalism has changed:

‘(But) In the present situation, capitalism is no longer involved in production, which it often relegates to the Third World, even for the complex forms of textiles, metallurgy, or oil production. It’s a capitalism of higher-order production. It no-longer buys raw materials and no longer sells the finished products: it buys the finished products or assembles parts. What it wants to sell is services but what it wants to buy is stocks. This is no longer a capitalism for production but for the product, which is to say, for being sold or marketed.’

Data is the new ‘stock’. By using applications as Twitter, you are providing stock, for free. Different kinds of control institution can use your data for different kind of purposes. Companies (that, according to Deleuze, have a ‘soul’) can use your data for marketing. Governmental controllers can trace you. Look at this Twitter instruction and promotion clip and you’ll notice that it’s sponsored by the U.S. Air Force. Why does the U.S. Airforce want you to Twitter?

You can discuss whether Twitter is just another member of the Big Brother family or just a social network application. But Deleuze already described the society has changed from an enclosed to an open one. In this open society people are leaving trails that are usable both for marketing and governmental discipline.

3 Responses to “Twitter: a Member of the Big Brother Family?”
  • October 13, 2008 at 11:38 am

    Nice post Arno, and specially thanks for the good visualization picks!

    Just to discuss your question: I think twitter, as much as a good 99% of social networking and web2.0 services, are all examples of business models based on the capitalization of large datasets generated by end-users. Probably an interesting peculiarity of twitter compared to, let’s say, Facebook is that all the data-accumulated here are potentially accessible by anybody; even if they are not logged in on the service. Both the visualizations tools you have mentioned use the anonymous twitter search API, which does not require you any log-in operation. I believe that this opens-up interesting opportunities not only for affiliated marketers (as in Facebook), but also for independent researchers and third party services.

  • October 13, 2008 at 11:22 pm

    Thanks for the feedback, Andrea. It’s indeed at least remarkable that Twitter gives all the data to anyone for free by using these search programma’s. Why for free? Is it a carrot for possible advertisers??
    It’s time for a deep Twitter deconstruction.

    I’m mostly surprised that the US Airforce is sponsering (a commercial about) Twitter. Today, Kai gave me this link:
    I’ll give a followup on this blog entry later this week, Web 2.0 and surveillance is an interesting combination.

  • October 15, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    […] Sunday, I tried to put Twitter in some theoretical framework with surveillance theory. I went further in a more practical […]

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