Twitter: A community or a utility?

by Mathew on May 23, 2008 · 8 comments

I’ve been kind of out of the loop thanks to the mesh 2008 conference, so I’ve missed the furore over Ariel Waldman and her attempts to get Twitter to ban a user that she says has been harassing her. According to her account of the situation on her blog, she tried repeatedly to get Twitter to enforce its own terms of service, which state that users “must not abuse, harass, threaten, impersonate or intimidate other Twitter users.” She emailed back and forth with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, but he said that the company couldn’t do anything because they were afraid of a lawsuit, and that they were going to review their terms of service, which Jack said were “open to interpretation.”

To complicate matters somewhat, Waldman — who describes herself as a “social media insights consultant” and blogs about art, sex, entertainment and technology at the blog Shake Well Before Use — also happens to be the community manager at Pownce, which could be seen as a direct competitor for Twitter. But she says in an update to her blog that the harassing behaviour and the complaints to Twitter came before she got her current job at Pownce. And in a bizarre twist, a commenter who claims to be Waldman’s mother says that the individual harassing her has been doing so for several years and is mentally unstable.

Waldman eventually started a thread at the customer-service site GetSatisfaction, and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone responded in a comment. Among other things, he said that the account in question had been removed voluntarily by the user in March, and that in any case the activity didn’t breach the terms of service. But the most interesting thing he said was that as far as Twitter was concerned (as pointed out GetSatisfaction thread), the service is “a communication utility, not a mediator of content.” In other words, Twitter wants to be treated the same as a “common carrier” such as a telephone company, which isn’t liable for the content it carries.

This is an understandable point of view to take from a legal standpoint, especially given U.S. laws such as the Communications Decency Act. But does it jibe with the way people treat Twitter? Many people seem to see it as a community. And other online services such as Flickr (as Waldman notes) remove content or ban users behaviour. Why not Twitter? Waldman may be over-reacting to the messages that were posted about her — there’s no way of knowing. And there is an argument to be made that she should just take her lumps and move on; block the user and ignore it. But at the same time, Twitter does seem to be weaseling out of its own terms of service, and that hardly seems kosher.

Update:

As Shelley notes in a comment, Ev Williams of Twitter has responded in a comment on Jeffrey Zeldman’s blog, in which he says that Ariel submitted a total of 13 messages and only one contained her name — making it highly unlikely that anyone would have been able to figure out that the other messages were about her (if they were about her at all). He also denies that the company has any fears about a lawsuit. In any case, he says Twitter doesn’t “have a rule against insulting people or hurting their feelings,” and that “We had to make a judgement call here, as one does in all such cases. This didn’t meet the bar for being banned, in our opinion.” If those facts are correct, I would have to agree.

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