Governments and Citizens: You Don’t Own Your Tweets

Just finished video blogging about this for but I felt this warrented a written blog too. Almost a year ago I wrote a blog post about plagarism and microblogging that no one really seemed to take seriously.  The point of it was that it wasn't really clear what "plagarism" means when content is one sentence, or 12 seconds, long. If I retweet you but change one word, am I lying? If I copy and paste a tweet of yours and pass it off as my own, is that stealing? No one really knows. And frankly, no one really cared much. Until now.
There's a bit of outrage about Tweet Nothings, a book where, essentially, the author scraped tweets and published them in a for-profit book. People aren't happy about it, and are giving it reviews of "1" and writing nasty rebuttals. But this is sort of like complaining to the king after he's chopped your head off – it doesn't do much good. And it's not even clear who's right or wrong, on some level. And this is what I wrote about in my O'Reilly Radar post above.
Well, it gets bigger. It was recently announced that Twitter was going to give it's entire archive of tweets – everything going back to 2006 – to the Library of Congress. For research. Now, there is a tremendous amount of research that can be done with this information. But I don't remember Twitter polling its users about this. I don't remember a discussion. I don't remember getting asked how this might affect me. And now it's all out there, from the first tweet on. Just so we're clear, for a long time people had been asking for archives of their own tweets and couldn't get them from a deaf-eared company, and now it turns out they have everything and the first thing they are going to do with it is give it to a third party so that yet other parties can data-mine it for their sociology Ph.D. dissertations. But if I write to the company and request a text file of all my tweets, I wonder what the answer would be?
You don't own your tweets. They do. But this goes still further.
Let's think about FourSquare, which is the "Twitter of 2010" that cannot be escaped, whether you use it or not. What if someone wanted to make a "mini-book" of the FourSquare habits of moderately famous people? I have a lot of moderately famous friends and acquaintances, what if I do four pages on each one, with photos of me with them, maps of where they go, what restaurants an hotels they like in New York and Las Vegas, and so forth. Maybe even predictions about places you might find them. Would that be okay? If it's not, and those people didn't like it, what are the ramifications?
Governments. They're adopting all these tools. We went from a phase where everyone's arm had to be twisted to take Twitter seriously to a phase where everyone is experimenting with it all over the place, sometimes with a reason and sometimes without one. One thing is for certain – they are providing gobs of free content to anyone who wants to suck it up, analyze it, graph it, mash it, publish it, and share it. When does the ethos of Web 2.0 come around to bite your agency in the ass? We will see an example of this – and probably multiple ones – before Obama's first term ends.
You don't own your tweets. What else don't you really own? Probably stuff on your Facebook fan page. What if I went to Vin Diesel's fan page (which is awesome, engaging, and incredibly popular) and took all the information, collated and edited it, and made an e-book called VIN: A Life Online, and took everyone's pictures with him, their notes of admiration and so forth and compiled a book? Who would stop me? Would anyone even know? I mean, you had a private photo with Vin, but then you publicized it on Facebook, tagged it up, and uploaded and shared. What are the ramifications?
My colleague danah boyd of Microsoft Research recently wrote an article about "privacy" vs. "publicity" and I think everyone who cares about the above should read it. One big point from it is that just because someone makes something public does not necessarily mean that they want it publicized. But who's really in control here? Is putting all my 35,000+ tweets in the Library of Congress forever publicizing my content. Kind of. What about publishing a book with (say) Merlin Mann's funny tweets in it? Certainly it is. What about my Vin e-book? Yes.
So, let's review. You don't own your tweets. It's not even clear who does. And it's not clear that Twitter cares if you know or not. And this is not just about Twitter – it extends to the ENTIRE Web 2.0 ecosystem. Do you own your Diggs? Who does? What can they do with them? Don't think for a second that you are in control. You are not. I could write a book today about what geeks dig. (Get it?) Who will stop me?
Use all these "free" social tools with caution, try to solve your business or non-profit or government or societal problems, but don't mistake the usefulness of an emerging platform with the notion that they care what you're doing with it. They have a different agenda, and it's not necessarily helping their "customers."

Posted via email from Mark’s Cheeky Posterous

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This post was written by:

Mark Drapeau - who has written 225 posts on Dr. Mark D. Drapeau.

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3 Comments For This Post

  1. Pam Broviak Says:

    I think this is a great post because some people might start using the tools assuming no one can copy their “stuff.” Being in government for so long, I am so used to not having any feeling of ownership or rights or secrecy on or about what I do that I guess I approached it all from that perspective. But the average person has a much greater expectation of privacy. So it is good to make people aware of this.

    As an additional element – just a couple weeks ago, the virtual world of Second Life released a clarification on their TOS indicating anyone has the right to take photos or create machinima of someone’s virtual creation unless that person has specifically stated this is not allowed.

  2. Eric Says:

    Hi Mark, just wanted to say how I love this blogpost on archiving twitterstuff. In the Netherlands we have a discussion going on Google Docs being used by 2.0 minded government personnel, not knowing they don’t own their government documents, but Google does. And Google is very clear about that in their conditions.

  3. Mark Drapeau Says:

    Thanks very much for your comments, Pam and Eric

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