How Improving Privacy Could Ruin Twitter

I came across a great article by Shéa Bennett on Twittercism today that got me thinking: how could Twitter improve the privacy of its users? Bennett thinks that untagging @mentions would be a step in the right direction, but how would greater privacy control over how your Twitter profile is accessed actually affect the whole Twitter experience?

Twitter isn’t like Facebook – you are not your profile. Instead, think of Twitter like a social information network. Your identity on Twitter is more about the information you share than it is about the profile you’ve built. After all, your Twitter profile isn’t too much more than a background, an image and a tweet-length bio.

So when thinking about privacy on Twitter, it’s important not to get it mixed up with privacy on Facebook. “Layered” privacy, or determining what type of connections can and cannot access different types of information on your profile, probably wouldn’t work.

Twitter connections aren’t defined by social groups. Anyone can follow you, and you can follow anyone. You don’t have to approve the follow, nor is there any information about how you’re connected – whether you are old high school friends or coworkers.

To improve Twitter’s privacy, you’ve got to make changes to individual mechanisms within the users’ control.

Bennett’s article today about privacy dealt with @mentions. He had noticed that he was being tagged in tweets that he wasn’t associated with, as spam bots or marketers tried to connect his name with a specific product (Viagra and the Jonas Brothers, apparently). This type of @mentioning is something he’d like to see greater user control over. Twitter could potentially give users the ability to un-mention themselves in a tweet that they didn’t want to be associated with.

I think this is a great idea, as long as Twitter implemented it right. It would allow greater control over your Twitter identity, and it would deter spammers from using Twitter at all, especially if there were some penalties associated with misuse of @mentions.

But how would this actually affect Twitter and its users?

Privacy is a contentious issue, but on Twitter it could prove to be especially so. While Bennett’s idea sounds good on paper, there is the possibility that it could lead to a closed – rather than open, as Twitter is right now – network of people connecting only with those they know from “real-life”. Simply giving users the ability to untag @mentions of their own names probably wouldn’t lead to this directly, but if users clamored for even more privacy control, you might see a whole new – and less open – Twitter emerge.

The power of Twitter as a breaking-news vehicle, a place to engage with customers, build a brand and interact with people all around the world lies in its open nature. Privacy and transparency are often opposed to one another, and on Twitter we see the contrast clearly: if Twitter began implementing stricter privacy controls, many Twitter users would effectively run themselves out of the game. They would close themselves off to “strangers”-as-followers, and gradually use the service less and less often as it became too similar to other social networks like Facebook.

We hope that Twitter stays open in nature, but that doesn’t mean it can’t consider implementing fine-tuned privacy controls. As long as the general orientation of Twitter is towards connections rather than approvals, I think being able to untag @mentions is a great privacy suggestion that could actually improve the Twitter experience for many users. Twitter just has to remain more aligned with open interactions than a closed network, and it should be safe from the stigma of too much privacy.