Does Twitter Need An Ombudsman?

Dave Winer wrote an interesting piece this week concerning Twitter’s reaction to an account he had used for testing applications. The @bullmancuso profile was closed by Twitter in October, and when Winer questioned their reasoning he was told:

“Your account was suspended because our specialists found that your tweets were primarily links to other sites and not personal updates, a violation of Twitter Rules.”

(read the article in full here)

Ultimately, Twitter restored the account, but Winer observed that, once again, “we’re playing in somebody else’s ballpark, and they make the rules.” He’s quite right of course – it is Twitter’s ballpark, and we are very much at the mercy of their whims and fancies. They were absolutely within their rights, as per their terms of service, to suspend the @bullmancuso account.

But there are a couple of major problems here.

  1. Consistency, and
  2. Fairness


Twitter’s actions above might seem a little excessive or harsh, but if that’s their policy then that’s their policy. Except it really isn’t, as there are thousands and thousands of accounts, many of which are high-profile with a million or more followers (such as the New York Times, Mashable, TechCrunch, CNN and The Onion) that do nothing but link to other sites (predominately, of course, their own) and have nary a ‘personal’ update between them.

I’m reminded once again of Twitter’s decision back in March of this year to suspend the Christopher Walken parody account, even though many other parody accounts with equal numbers of followers existed at the same time, and continue to do so today.

More examples? Why is @mashable a verified account, and @techcrunch is not?

Why do some people who ask for help get it immediately, whilst others have to wait months or, with increasing frequency, get brushed off with the standardised response of a list of frequently asked questions whilst their support ticket is immediately closed?

We could live with all most some one or two of these things if we had a little consistency. It’s the randomness of the outcome that makes it all so maddening.


Sometimes, corporations make decisions that suck. And the bigger the corporate entity, the more sucky those decisions seem to be, especially for the little guy at the other end of the stick.

When Twitter suspends or deletes an account, most of the time it’s for the right reasons. Perhaps the individual was a spammer or crossed the line in some other severe fashion.

Occasionally, however, and I would say more often than most people would suspect, they make mistakes. Or they misunderstand a situation. Or they act in some totally irrational manner which goes against everything else they’ve done since day one.

It’s these instances that concern me. I’ve written many times about how and why it’s so important that we’re given a way to easily backup and (critically) be able to restore out Twitter accounts, because things do go wrong, and sometimes Twitter has a strop, picks up its ball and says that it – and more important you – are not playing any more.

But in all these examples, irrespective of where the fault actually lies, it ultimately comes down to your word against Twitter’s. Dave Winer has the clout and track record for the powers-that-be at Twitter to pay a little attention, but would they have been quite as forthcoming for somebody with a little less internet presence? Who was slightly less well-known, and perhaps not quite as persistent?

Or would that individual have been completely ignored?

And Then What Happens?

What options would that person have left? Sure, they could open another account and complain that way, but what’s that really going to accomplish? And who exactly is going to listen, or even care? It’s worth noting that several leading mathematicians recently calculated that your odds of winning the lottery are only slightly worse than those of you actually getting a reply on Twitter from Biz Stone.

Twitter is rapidly becoming a really big hairy deal. In less than a year it has firmly embedded itself, taken root and began to parasitically feed upon and nourish the minds of the public at large and the global media. It’s changed the game, and perhaps for the first time in our history, made it a level playing field.

And the thing is, they’re our tweets. As a collective, we own Twitter. Take away the tweets, and the company isn’t left with much more than a boardroom table and some ill-considered pieces of art. Shouldn’t we expect a little courtesy? A little fairness? Some consistency?

All of which leads me to ask this question: does Twitter need a trusted intermediary that can fairly and honestly investigate complaints against it? An appointed official or entity that would investigate complaints and issues raised by individuals who felt they had been unfairly treated by the social network?

More importantly: do we need it?

I think we do, and I think we need it now. Twitter is a big deal today – just what exactly is it going to be in two years from now, or five? Too big, perhaps, to do much about. Better to start setting precedents on both sides in these relatively early stages, than having them laid down upon us in the future to come.

After all, it was us that scorched the sky.