Let People Find Me By My Email Address Or Mobile Number, Twitter? Uh, No Thanks

Earlier this week I started getting some curious emails from Twitter that informed me that some users had requested to follow me on the network. How strange, I thought – my status updates aren’t protected, so why not just click on the follow button like, you know, everybody else?

Well, this was a little different – they’d searched for me via my email address and Twitter then asked me for my permission, adding that the reason it was doing this was because my account wasn’t configured to let users find me by email.

The message also presented me with options to change these settings, and I promptly clicked on the ‘do not let others find me by my email address’ link.

Why? I’m not completely sure, to be honest, but something about it didn’t feel right. Concerns I had with the privacy implications of using Google Buzz were still lingering in my mind, and even though there’s a chance that some who search for me by my email address actually know me, because I readily share my email openly it’s significantly more likely that the majority will be spammers. Gmail handles 99.99% of that incoming spam for me – Twitter does not.

Earlier today, I logged on to Twitter.com and was presented with this pop-up.

This also gave me the choice to opt-out of being found by my mobile number, too, which I took. While there’s every chance that searches done by this method will be legitimate, there’s something about it that doesn’t feel right. Why not just search for my name? It’s unique enough that these other options aren’t really necessary for me. I suppose for the John Smiths of this world, and certainly those who keep their email address very private, it might be a little different.

Or not – the implications of being tracked by your email address or mobile number are significant, certainly if you wish to maintain a level of anonymity or privacy. I’m not a fan of the former, but that doesn’t mean that the latter should not be completely respected. Your boss likely knows your email address, as does your ex, and several other people that you might not want to be reading your tweets, or at least being able to definitively connect them with you.

As my friend Neil says:

I have no problem with someone authenticating their true identity privately with the provider. But I firmly believe that a person should be able to keep their true identity private from their online associates or lurkers.

And so, by being able to search by e-mail address, twitter has violated a trust – the trust given when the person signed up with the required e-mail address, assuming that information would be kept confidential.

To be fair, by providing us with this pop-up opt-out Twitter has taken some responsibility here. And the emails I received earlier in the week might have been part of their usual, stagger-in beta process where a few (lucky) users get their hands on the new stuff first. And we have been able to find users via their email address for some time. I have no problem with that, but there’s still something about this that makes me a little uncomfortable.

For starters, it’s on by default. (Update:  It’s marked on when you see the pop-up, but you are not automatically opted-in. See the comment below from Twitter product manager Josh Elman.)

I wonder how many will ignore the pop-up, or not realise the implications of being located using these methods. For many it won’t make a lick of difference. For some, it could be very important indeed.

I’m probably being a little overly paranoid and will perhaps adjust these settings in the future, but while I think it is somewhat useful for people you already know to find you within social networks, it’s not as important as being found by new people. Who won’t, naturally, know your email address or phone number, and so will have to find you because you’re standing out, by being interesting, useful and engaging.

My friends? They’ll probably ask me down the pub.

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