Twitter at a crossroads: Economic value vs. information value

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Updated: Almost every day, it seems, we get further evidence of the dilemma at the heart of Twitter’s ongoing evolution from real-time information network into multibillion-dollar commercial media entity — and the latest is the furor over the company’s suspension of the Twitter account belonging to Guy Adams, a British journalist. As Jeff Jarvis and Dan Gillmor and others have noted, regardless of the details of this specific case, it seems like a defining moment for Twitter: the network that has bragged in the past about being the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party” now looks to be censoring journalists who criticize the company’s corporate partners. How the company decides to handle this incident will speak volumes about where Twitter’s future lies.

As my colleague Jeff Roberts has noted in his report on the case, Twitter says that Adams — a freelance journalist writing for The Independent who has been openly critical of NBC for the way it has handled its broadcast of the Olympics — breached the network’s terms of use by posting the email address of an NBC executive, Gary Zenkel. The journalist’s account was immediately suspended, without any notice (which appears to be a breach of Twitter’s own rules on how to handle such events), and Adams has since written a piece for The Independent in which he describes how he believes that “>this kind of censorship calls into question Twitter’s commitment to freedom of speech and other ethical principles:

“Thanks to Twitter, and Google and every other medium dedicated to the free exchange of information, the world is supposed to have changed [and] that’s why, regardless of its comparative frivolity, NBC’s successful attempt to suspend a journalist from a social networking site sets an ugly precedent.”

Suspending a journalist’s account is a dangerous move

There has been much debate about whether Twitter’s rule about posting private email addresses makes sense or not, and about whether the NBC executive’s email address is even private — since it is a work-related address that has appeared on the internet before and follows the standard format for NBC work emails. It also appears from some of the reporting about the incident that Twitter staff actually alerted NBC to the message and instructed them in how to file a complaint, although so far the only response from Twitter has come in a comment to Neal Mann of the Wall Street Journal, in which the company said that it “doesn’t actively monitor content.”

Update: Adams said shortly after this post was published on Tuesday that his account had been reinstated by Twitter, and that the company told him in a letter it had “received an update from the complainant retracting their original request.”

[tweet https://twitter.com/guyadams/status/230359474655870978]

Twitter’s general counsel Alex MacGillivray has posted an explanation of what happened on the company’s blog, and said that the approach it took was consistent with its “trust and safety” procedures — but he did apologize for the fact that a Twitter staffer alerted NBC to the tweet from Adams. As MacGillivray said:

We do not proactively report or remove content on behalf of other users no matter who they are. This behavior is not acceptable and undermines the trust our users have in us. We should not and cannot be in the business of proactively monitoring and flagging content, no matter who the user is — whether a business partner, celebrity or friend.

Many critics have wondered why Twitter would take such immediate and aggressive action against a journalist like Adams, when a wide variety of other messages revealing personal details about users in the past have not been removed, and the people who posted them have faced no sanctions. For example, multiple people (including celebrity director Spike Lee) posted the address of someone they believed to be George Zimmerman, the accused killer of Trayvon Martin, and About.me staffer Laura Gluhanich wondered why the person who posted her home address and threatened to dismember her faced no similar sanctions.

[tweet https://twitter.com/LauraGlu/status/230093653102690305]

What makes this incident look particularly bad for Twitter is that Adams didn’t just post criticism of a random company and a personal email address for a random executive — he posted it about NBC, which happens to be one of Twitter’s corporate partners. The two co-developed and launched an official Olympics hub that curates and filters the stream of content appearing on Twitter about the Games, one of a series of similar efforts that Twitter has been rolling out around prominent events like the Olympics and NASCAR (the Twitter hub is also not available to users outside the U.S. because of licensing restrictions imposed by NBC).

These increasingly corporate-oriented ambitions, which we have written about a number of times at GigaOM, raise all kinds of issues for Twitter. As I’ve tried to point out, they bring the network into an increasingly competitive relationship with traditional media entities, as Twitter itself takes on more of the curation and filtering function they have traditionally filled. But the Adams case brings up another issue that is arguably even more important — and that is the potential for Twitter’s corporate interests and partnerships to sway its decision-making when it comes to what kind of speech it will tolerate. As Jeff Jarvis notes:

“The real issue here is that Twitter entered a business deal with NBC and its parent, Comcast, for the Olympics. That, in Adams’ word, puts NBC and Twitter in cahoots with each other. So now do other users have to worry about biting the hand that feeds Twitter?”

Free speech will collide with Twitter’s commercial interests again

Twitter was more than happy to announce that “the tweets must flow” when the network was being used by dissidents to protest and raise awareness about the evils of the corrupt Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak, but the NBC case brings those issues a lot closer to home. The company didn’t have a commercial relationship with Egypt or the Mubarak regime, so it was easier to make a clear-cut determination in that situation — the needs of those consuming critical information about a revolutionary event took precedence. In the Adams case, it feels as though Twitter has allowed commercial considerations to govern its behavior instead, or has at least allowed them to taint its decision making.

We’ve already seen growing dissent over Twitter’s crackdown on companies that are using its API, as it tries to control more of the content that flows through its network, and dictate where and how that content is consumed. Regardless of how Twitter sees itself, that kind of control is fundamentally the same approach as that taken by any media entity such as the New York Times. And as Jarvis points out, that element of control and the commercial considerations around it is bound to clash at some point with the way that people have come to see Twitter as a real-time information distribution system.

As Hunter Walk of YouTube pointed out recently, asserting more control over the network probably makes perfect sense from a financial and business-model standpoint, as Twitter tries to justify its estimated $8-billion market cap and satisfy its prominent venture backers. But those commercial interests could prove to be fundamentally at odds with the company’s previously stated goal of being an information-distribution network that cares more about free speech than commercial or political considerations.

Rightly or wrongly, users seem to see Twitter’s behavior in the Adams case as evidence that it is willing to throw free speech under the bus in order to maintain commercial relationships. If that isn’t the case (which I hope it isn’t), then Twitter needs to figure out how to repair that impression as quickly as possible — or risk jeopardizing the very thing that has gotten it to this point in the first place.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Jennifer Moo and Zert Sonstige

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