11 Comments

Summary:

A leading British politician is in hot water after mistakenly publishing a message to Twitter that was intended to stay private. But while his error provides some fun for the peanut gallery, the slip underscores a larger usability problem that Twitter has failed to deal with.

Chris Huhne under Creative Commons license courtesy of Flickr user dspender

It looked like an ordinary Friday afternoon for Chris Huhne, Britain’s secretary of state for energy and a member of the British coalition government. The day was ending. Things were wrapping up for the weekend. And then it all went haywire.

A mysterious message appeared on his Twitter stream: “From someone else fine,” it said. “But I do not want my fingerprints on the story C.”

It was rapidly deleted, but by then, of course, it was too late. Some of his 7,500 followers — some of them reporters — had picked up the message and began questioning it.

Was it genuine? Almost certainly: The message, obviously sent by mistake, apparently came in by text. But what was the story he was referring to? Was it a leak? Was it an attempt to undermine a rival… or even an ally? In these fractious political times, the mere hint of conspiracy was enough to send the political machine into overdrive, while Huhne himself appears to have gone silent.

This mini scandal will probably blow over, but the idea of a public figure being skewered by private messages let loose is far from new. Technology can accelerate leaks and slips; just ask Anthony Weiner, whose groin probably has spent as much time on the air as the man himself, or British prime minister Gordon Brown, who called a supporter “bigoted” without realizing his microphone was still on.

But these leaks have always happened whenever somebody fails to control their message or the people around them. Just look at the famous Zimmerman telegram, which hastened America’s entry into the First World War.

Some argue that these slips — in the long run — are no bad thing, since everything should happen in public. In a way, the “frictionless sharing” Facebook has championed is a euphemism for precisely that. And it’s an idea that media critic Jeff Jarvis argues forcefully in favor of in his book Public Parts.

But here’s the problem with slips like Huhne’s: They aren’t failures of control; they are failures of technology.

Regardless of the content of his message, the real issue is that Twitter’s architecture makes it incredibly easy to make the same mistake. There can’t be many of us who have never sent a direct message to our public accounts by mistake. Twitter has made changes to the system over the years, but day after day, people are still making this mistake.

Will Twitter ever fix this? Can it?

I don’t know, but I fear if they don’t, the service risks losing people who worry about these kind of mistakes happening. Whatever you think about Twitter’s value to the public sphere, it’s been refreshing for many people to be able to contact their representatives directly this way. But every slip-up makes it a little harder for conservative politicians and public figures to make the decision to sign up.

Can you blame them? I doubt any of us would press send so hastily if there were a button labelled “IMPLODE CAREER”.

But it would be a shame to lose out simply because politicians and public figures get too worried about pressing the wrong button. So please, Twitter, do something. You may regret it otherwise.

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  1. Twitter nor any other service shouldn’t be blamed here. That’s like blaming a gun when someone is killed. Could Twitter add more friction? Sure. Will that enhnce or help them? Maybe. The user slipped. And it should be their behavior that gets more investigation, even as it relates to the tech. In this case, tweeting, even in a DM, such instructions is a setup for disaster later. Such things are better stated in more secure channels, or at least f2f.

    1. I have to say I’m with AR on this one. It’s no more specific to Twitter than it is to hitting “reply all” on email or texting the wrong person (which is really what this was) or IMing the wrong person. It’s simple human error and a product of moving too fast and not being careful with what you say and do. I’m not sure there’s a user out there who hasn’t flubbed something at one time or another with tech like this, and I don’t know how Twitter can program around human error.

    2. on mobile devices it is easy to get a direct message in your text stream, reply to it thinking its a DM and it goes public. While you are right technically it’s not the technology, but still the technology is not developed with any safeguards to prevent the potential for a message going public when it was intended to go private.

  2. Hummm… is this a problem the Twitter folks have to fix OR is it a problem the VOTING peoples have to fix electing STUPID PEOPLE to public office. And for sure, that problem is not unique to the UK..

  3. Clay Loveless Friday, October 7, 2011

    This is not Twitter’s problem to fix. Hot liquids are served in the same types of containers as cold liquids. Over generations, these have come to occasionally be labelled “Caution: hot!”, but that’s about it.

    Evolution has taught is to be careful with beverage-containment technology, but it’s been a slow process. So too will we as a species learn caution with asinie-comment-making technology.

  4. Bobbie Johnson Friday, October 7, 2011

    Of course, I wanted to point out that I am not suggesting that Huhne or others are not dumb for doing this. Nor am I suggesting that I’d rather these conversations never made it into the public sphere: I enjoy somebody hoisting themselves by their own petard as much as the next man.

    But this happens so often to so many people that it’s clearly an interface problem. If you put the power switch in an unfamiliar place and everybody ends up switching their machine off by mistake, who’s fault is it? Good design understands not just what can be done, but what users are likely to do.

    My point is that if incidents like this deters some public figures from using Twitter at all (which I know happens) then we are all worse off.

    1. I don’t see this as an interface problem. This tweet was received by text – meaning he texted twitter instead of who he meant to text. It’s not as if he meant to DM someone and tweeted instead.

  5. Benjamin Woodruff Friday, October 7, 2011

    Maybe politicians should just stop being douchebags.

    #OccupyWallSt

  6. He/anyone could just disable SMS updates. Problem solved.

  7. Ambrish Kochikar Saturday, October 8, 2011

    Are we seriously going to do this? Blame Twitter for a flaw that simply does not exist?

  8. Really? Do you think Anthony Weiner had trouble with Twitter’s interface?

    When someone misuses Twitter, it is not Twitter’s problem nor is it an interface problem. If someone has trouble with the interface of Twitter, they should seek help in fully understanding the interface, or they shouldn’t be using Twitter in the first place. When an incident such as the one with Chris Huhne occurs, that is human error, or in the case of Anthony Weiner, human stupidity.

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