How to avoid being a Twitter tw*t

David Cameron, when asked why he isn’t on Twitter, once memorably replied that “too many tweets might make a twat“. It’s a lesson well worth learning, although as a regular Twitter user myself I have to admit that it isn’t advice I’ve chosen to follow.

It’s advice that Linda Hobson might be wishing she’d taken, though. Linda is a UNISON activist and a Labour Councillor in Newcastle-on-Tyne. I know that because it used to say that on her Twitter profile. And the reason I haven’t just linked to it is because it doesn’t say that any more.

It all started with a tweet:

“Just put news on to see Thatcher – for a brief minute I celebrated her death – until reality struck – if only”

Some people, unsurprisingly, found that rather offensive. I’d have to say that I’ve seen worse, but it is the sort of thing that an elected representative is certainly best-advised to avoid saying.

Saying something stupid on Twitter is a hazard of the medium, though, and people more famous and more influential than Linda Hobson have said stupid things in the past. But when you do say something stupid on Twitter (or Facebook, or Google+, or wherever) then there are a few sensible courses of action to follow.

The first is to hope that nobody notices it. Make a few more posts in short order and hope that they push the unwanted one off the page before it gets spotted. That’s more likely to work on Google+ than the other two, of course, and it’s a slightly more risky course of action on Facebook because of the way that the Timeline works (although if it remains unnoticed for a day or two, you’re then safe to delete it). But, overall, if you can avoid it being remarked on then you’re home and dry.

If that doesn’t work (and I don’t know if Ms Hobson tried it, but if so it clearly didn’t for her), then there are two options for the next step.

The first is to front it out. Claim that you weren’t intending to be serious, and that people (including politicians and public figures) should be free to speak their mind even if that potentially offends people. If you’re really sure of your ground, then go on the attack – insinuate (or even state outright) that only your opponents could be so petty and small-minded as to get worked up about it. That can be particularly effective if the remark was intended to be funny; playing the Twitter Joke Trial card will generate sympathy even from those not normally inclined to support you. Or, if you were just being downright offensive, characterising it as a throwaway remark can have a similar effect.

The other option is to apologise. If you’re going to do that, do it properly, and do it before it looks as if you’re only doing it because your arm has been twisted or you fear the consequences if you don’t. In particular if you’re going to apologise, then that has to be the first thing you do. You can’t start off by fronting it out and then apologising later; that will just make it look as though the apology is forced. So make a decision early: Are you going to apologise or not? If the answer is not, that’s a final decision, you can’t go back on it with your credibility intact. But, on the other hand, you can combine an apology with a minimisation strategy if you apologise first. If your first tweet after the offensive one is something like

Sorry, that was really stupid of me. I completely withdraw that last remark

then you can follow it up with another one saying

I didn’t mean to be offensive, it was just a throwaway comment that came out wrong

and the chances are you’ll have successfully drawn the sting from it.

What you don’t do, though, is try to cover it up. Which is where Linda Hobson went wrong.

From Google's thumbnail
From Bing Cache

First, she deleted the offending tweet – despite the fact that someone had already taken a screenshot. Then she locked her Twitter feed, meaning nobody could view it without her permission. The next step was to edit her profile to remove any reference to UNISON and the council – which doesn’t, of course, remove Google’s thumbnail image or Bing’s cache of it.

Finally, she either deleted (or, more likely, renamed) the account so that it’s no longer accessible under the original name. Which is why I didn’t bother linking to it.

What that meant, of course, was that far from burying the unfortunate tweet, she simply drew even more attention to it and to herself. Councillors, MPs and activists on both sides of the political divide have lined up to condemn her, and I haven’t yet seen a single tweet in her defence. Which is a pity, really, because the original tweet wasn’t all that horrendous. As I said, I’ve seen worse (and if it was actually intended as a joke I genuinely would defend her right to say it). It was the hamfisted attempt to cover it up and try and pretend it had never been said which was the really stupid thing to do.

So, if you ever find yourself saying something dumb on Twitter, remember: You do have a choice on how to deal with it. Just don’t let it be Hobson’s choice.

Arrogant Twits

One of the limitations of Twitter is that it’s hard to tweet a URL without exceeding the 140 character limit. A result of that has been the growth in URL shorteners, such as bit.ly, is.gd, ow.ly and so on. Last year, Twitter got in on the act itself and registered its own short domain, t.co, to use as a shortener.

Recently, you may have noticed that Twitter now automatically shortens anything longer than 19 characters using t.co, so you don’t need to use a third party shortener any more. This is applied both to tweets made via the web and via any third party application which uses the Twitter API (such as phone and desktop apps). You can read Twitter’s announcement of the change on their developer blog.

Sounds like a good thing, no? Well, no. For a start, it now means that any URL which is already being shortened by another shortener gets re-shortened. That includes bit.ly, as well as various “own brand” shorteners such as bbc.in (used by the BBC) and gu.com (The Guardian). As well as being pointless, that adds another, entirely unnecessary, layer of redirection into the system. It also means that it’s impossible to tweet a longer URL unmunged even if you wanted to – and, while that may be uncommon, if you do want to then you certainly don’t want Twitter rewriting it.

What’s more of a concern is that t.co, like all Twitter domains, is blocked in places like China. While Twitter itself can be accessed via intermediary applications which connect through a VPN to the Twitter API, if a URL is transformed into a t.co link then the ultimate destination is much harder to reach as it can’t simply be clicked on no matter what software is being used to read the tweets.

More worryingly, Twitter plans, eventually, to use t.co for all URLs, even those that are shorter than the 19 or 20 characters that a t.co URL takes up. The reason for that is that Twitter wants to eliminate all non-Twitter URLs fro the stream. As Twitter developer Taylor Singletary puts it:

It’s limiting to think of this service as simply a URL shortener. When you view it this way, some of its functionality may seem absurd to you. t.co is a URL wrapper. It wraps URLs to primarily protect users from malicious content and to better understand how users interact with shared content — understandings that will yield product features and additional APIs in the future.

The anti-spam argument makes a bit of sense. Being able to switch off a short URL that is being used abusively is a valuable defence against spam and phishing. But other shorteners already offer the same option, so forcing all URLs through t.co isn’t going to help a lot with that. But it’s the second part of Taylor’s comment which most concerns me. It seems to me that this is being driven more by Twitter’s own need to find ways to monetise its operations. Can we be sure that, in future. t.co URLs won’t redirect via interstitial pages containing advertising, for example? I’m not opposed to advertising – I’ve got it on this website – but I am unhappy with it being used intrusively. Forcing all URLs through t.co also means that Twitter will build up a huge database of URL clicks, allowing it to see who follows which links. There are some very good privacy reasons why that’s not necessarily a good thing.

If you think it’s a bad idea too, can I encourage you to go to the Twitter developer blog and add your own comment. You don’t need to be a user of the developer API, all you need is a Twitter account to sign in and comment. If enough people make their voices heard, then it’s possible that minds may change.

URL shortening, and bubble 2.0

Having recently started to use Twitter, I’ve noticed that a lot of posts use a URL-shortening system because of ¬†Twitter’s 140 character tweet limit. I’m already familiar with TinyURL.com as it’s useful for Usenet and email (and offline use, such as in print) when you need to shorten unfeasibly large URLs. TinyURL is fine for most uses, as it’s short enough to fit on a single line (the key requirement for email and Usenet) and also fairly memorable (very useful for offline use). But Twitter users (Twitterers?) tend to prefer alternative URL shorteners such as bit.ly and is.gd, since they’re shorter than TinyURL and size matters on Twitter. In fact, the growth of the new ultra-short URL shorteners seems to have been driven primarily by Twitter, since they rarely seem to get used anywhere else.

Continue reading “URL shortening, and bubble 2.0”