The People's Republic of Twitter

There's an important public debate taking place on Quora this weekend. It has to do with a privately held social network's autonomy to suppress uses that conflict with its own business goals.

Sparking the debate is Twitter's decision to censor UberTwitter, a popular Twitter client for Blackberry, iPhone and Android.

At first blush, Twitter's decision would appear to be, not about enforcing community guidelines, nor about policing use that might compromise the integrity of the platform, but rather about economics. UberTwitter would appear to be too effectively serving lunch at a table Twitter prefers to spread.

Picture 46Sharpening the edge of this domestic, commercial dispute: it comes at a time when popular political uprisings in so many other parts of the world are being termed, in this country, "Twitter" or "Facebook revolutions."

If Twitter is a symbol for inherently open and democratic networking (I said "if" and not "that" this is so), then the boundaries Twitter sets commercially matter greatly. If Twitter censors uses that monetize in ways it wants to keep to itself, that could be indicative of limits, as yet untested, for Twitter's tolerance of uses by revolutionaries or insurgents who may fall outside Twitter's favor.

It's also discouraging to find Twitter, the official brand, partnering with mainstream media and turning to advertising as a business model. This devalues Twitter as a meaningful UGC alternative to mass media, except to the extent that users are able to "hack" the official Twitter applications and continue to use Twitter as a social network.

I've been wondering when Evgeny Morozov, author of "The Net Delusion" (my review here), would write longer-form about recent events in Egypt, and he's done so now in the WSJ. Morozov is suggesting that the average dictator will be savvier than Mubarack when assessing the influence and power of the internet and social media. China, Russia and Syria, he writes, are examples of authoritarian regimes that jump into the fray and co-opt and compromise the conversations.

Spookily enough, in classic corporate-PR speak in its help center, Twitter echoes the authoritarian tactic of providing "official" alternatives:

"Every day, we suspend hundreds of applications that are in violation of our policies. Generally, these apps are used by a small number of users. We are taking the unusual step of sharing this with you because today's suspension may affect a larger number of users.

"We are committed to helping you continue to use Twitter during the disruption of these applications. You can download Twitter for Blackberry, Twitter for Android and other official Twitter apps here. You can also try our mobile web site or apps from other third-party developers."

(Emphasis added; hyperlink omitted.) Taking this up to the geopolitical level, the tactic is not to shutdown the internet as a whole, but instead to disrupt services selectively and redirect participation to approved channels. Twitter's reasons for behaving this way may be economic, rather than political, but the experience belies the illusion that Twitter might serve willingly or reliably as a public forum for speech.

Tomorrow on this blog: "Public Capitulations," a reflection on aggresive, tactical retreats, including the posting by UberTwitter's CEO to Quora about his company's response to Twitter's demands.

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