Privacy in Twitter

On: October 16, 2008
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About Bram Nijhof
Bram Nijhof is a master student of New Media at the University of Amsterdam. He has a bachelor degree in Art & Technology and a bachelor degree in Media & Culture with an expertise in New Media.


Twitter is micro-blogging software that allows users to report and share what they are doing or what’s on their mind. It can be useful for friends to see where you are and what you are doing and it can be a dairy with short messages. But there are some things people have to be careful for. That are privacy and insecurity matters.

In David Utter’s article ‘Twitter Your Way To Insecurity’ he tells about the insecurity of Twitter. If you send a tweet with the message “Hi, I’m out of town” then this message can fell into the hands of the wrong people. Then you can be a candidate for home burglary.

Twitter is a social networking service and like other SNS sites like Facebook and Myspace it has some similarities: privacy issues. Mischaud recommend in his Twitter research to further research privacy and surveillance matters. He was are worried about ‘ […] the platform’s ‘open’ design and the relative ease of ‘third party’ surveillance’ (Mischaud, 2007: 35)

Mischaud states the blurring between private and public in Twitter. Things that we don’t share in face-to-face contacts are now present. Mischaud give some examples: “70 hours since my last shower” or “getting ready for bed”. Intimate and ordinary details of someone’s life are pulled out. (Mischaud, 2007: 32). People can track what you are doing the whole day and what’s on your mind.

Another aspect is when people uses Twitter on their work. It can have consequences if someone tweets that the meeting is boring. Also time and date are visible and colleges can see if someone was during the meeting only busy with Twittering instead of participating. But that’s their own responsibility. If someone is applying for a job many times the employer is tracking their profiles on social networking sites. They could also take a look at Twitter. Then they could see what you are doing all the time and they could make conclusions about what kind of person you are. That could be working out negative. They can see for example that during your student time you go late to bed and come out of bed late. And their interpretation could be that you are lazy. Also data-miners, who are “[…] collecting, analyzing and interpreting personal information” (Barnes 2006: 9) could be involved in this process. Organizations can hire them to get this information. Barnes says that data-miners uses the data of social networking sites. She talks about platform’s like Facebook, but it is waiting for the first stories about Twitter.

Companies also are making use of Twitter. Comcast Cares is an example of how to use Twitter for product innovation. They have a Comcast Cares Twitter account. In Brian Magiersky’s blog he says that Comcast Cares uses Twitter to monitor feedback of the users and track them with the ‘track’ function. They can see if people are positive or negative about the product. In this way companies can develop their product with this information. Also marketeers can use the ‘track’ function to get all the messages about a keyword. Dell is another company who uses Twitter for marketing properties. They sell computers via their Twitter channel.

Susan B. Barnes wrote about privacy and social networking sites. She did research how teenagers uses those sites and how their privacy comes in danger. She states that government agencies and marketers are collecting data about us. Barnes says: “Many people may not be aware of the fact that their privacy has already been jeopardized and they are not taking steps to protect their personal information from being used by others.” (Barnes, 2006: 4) And then she asked the question: “In an age of digital media, do we really have any privacy?” She uses Oscar Gandy’s who wrotes about the Panoption, where people are observed and controlled. There would probably no privacy. Barnes said that “[…] online social networks allow for high levels of surveillance.” And then she calls the marketers, college officials and parents who can access social networking sites (Barnes 2006: 5). She also states that teenagers freely give up personal information, because they are not aware of the public nature of the Internet (Barnes 2006: 6).

Standard are the tweets of your profile public, but you can switch that off. Then there is more privacy, but do people want that? Gloria E. Jacobs describes in her article the posting of every little event from the perspective of the blogosphere:

“[…] “thoughtcasting” (Croal 2008), which is the act of posting or publishing every little event in one’s life or thought that passes through one’s mind. Such acts, I suggest are a reaction to an attention economy (Goldhaber 1997) in which information is plentiful but attention is scarce. Or, blogging can be about creating and building relationships, participating in a community, and reflecting on experience at both the local and global levels. (Jacobs 2008)”

“Thoughtcasting” is like the messages people post on Twitter. Jacobs thinks that it is a reaction on the attention economy. Maybe posting as much as possible is a way to get attention. To get some new relationships it is handy if the user has a public profile. Otherwise, no one knows you. Then you get more followers. But do people want as much as followers? Do they want as much as attention? When looking at some Twitter profiles, some people have hundreds of followers. Some people gets a celebrity status. The only drawback is like real celebrities that you have less privacy the more details you publish about your private life. Also the more followers the more people retrieve this information.

Twitter has a function to delete tweets. Then you’ll think that the message is gone, but one the Internet nothing can be really deleted. What about the Twitter messages you imported in Facebook or what about the messages others have received? In my opinion if your profile is public you have to be careful about what, when and how you post your tweets.

Mannan, M. & P. C. van Oorschot (2008). ‘Privacy-Enhanced Sharing of Personal Content on the Web’. (12-10-2008)

Mischaud, E. (2007). ‘Twitter: Expressions of the Whole Self’. London: Media@lse. (12-10-2008)

Krishnamurthy, B. & C. E. Wills (2008). ‘Characterizing Privacy in Online Social Networks’. (12-10-2008)

Barnes, S. B. (2006, September). “A privacy paradox: social networking in the United
States”. First Monday, Vol. 11 (9). (12-10-2008)

Jacobs. G. E. (2008). “Saying Something or Having Something to Say: Attention Seeking, the Breakdown of Privacy, and the Promise of Discourse in the Blogosphere”. (13-10-2008)

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