Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Blue bird of prey?: Twitter and its discontented

It was one of those one-two punches of news that suggests a curious, maybe ominous parallel, a coincidence of timing that forces us to remember that correlation isn’t causation. No matter how it feels.

On Monday, Prince Waleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia announced that he had purchased a $300 million stake in Twitter, the vastly popular social-media startup whose 100 million regular users find as much a daily necessary as breathing.

The prince has a long and enviable track record of investing in a variety of developing and emerging companies; Walt Disney, Citigroup and Apple are some of the trophies in his global portfolio. Since Twitter is thought to be nowhere near plans to become a publicly traded company, it appears that the prince, a studious and canny investor, made an investment in Twitter that should be seen for what it is: a smart investment by someone with pockets cavernous enough to make it worthwhile.

But at almost the same time as the prince’s big buy, there was other evidence of Twitter growing up and changing, signs of that playful blue bird maybe taking on the attributes of a velociraptor.

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On Sunday, BusinessInsider.com published the following report by David Seaman, a blogger and creator of Credit Card Outlaw, a popular finance blog and credit card comparison Web site:

“Imagine my surprise this morning when, without warning, my shiny new Twitter account (@d_seaman) was suspended and taken offline.

“No more tweets for you. You now have 0 followers.

“My crime? Talking too much about Occupy Wall Street (I'm not an Occupier, but as a blogger and journalist it strikes me as one of the most important stories out there -- hence the constant coverage), and talking too much about the controversial detainment without trial provisions contained in the FY 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which would basically shred the Bill of Rights and subject American citizens to military police forces. The same level of civil rights protection that enemy combatants in a cave in Afghanistan receive!

“But no, my tweets were 'annoying our users,' according to Twitter's suspension notice.”

Seaman said he reached out to Ev Williams, the co-founder of Twitter, and to other tech journalists for information and, hopefully, some answers. “I don't want to start a big thing -- I just want my account reactivated. This is America, not Iran, thanks in advance.”

Seaman also noted, and questioned “why #NDAA and #OWS, which are receiving consistently VERY high volumes of conversation/tweet traffic are not trending at all on Twitter, yet their featured 'worldwide trends' this morning include: Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, #myfavoritefood, and Kindergarten Cop.”

A subsequent editor’s note said that Business Insider contacted Twitter’s public relations department and was told they “never mediate content. Period.” No further comment at that time.

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Later over the weekend, however, the gremlins that snuck into Seaman’s account were ferretted out.

Quoting him:

“At approximately 7:37 pm ET, my Twitter account was restored, and I received the following message from Twitter support: ‘Hello, Twitter has automated systems that find and remove multiple automated spam accounts in bulk. Unfortunately, it looks like your account got caught up in one of these spam groups by mistake. I've restored your account; sorry for the inconvenience. Please note that it may take an hour or so for your follower and following numbers to return to normal.’

“At 8:29 pm ET, a second email from Twitter support was received: ‘Hello, As a clarification, your account was suspended twice; the initial suspension was due to a number of unsolicited duplicate or near-duplicate messages being sent using the @reply and/or mention feature. These features are intended to make communication between people on Twitter easier. Twitter monitors the use of these features to make sure they are used as intended and not for abuse. Using either feature to post messages to a bunch of users in an unsolicited or egregious manner is considered an abuse of its use, which results in an automated account suspension. However, the second suspension after you navigated the self-unsuspension page was due to a known error we are working to fix; our apologies for the re-suspension. Please let me know if you have any questions.’”

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Was it all a tempest in a Twitter account? Maybe. From all indications, Seaman made peace with the IT jefes at Twitter; some algorithmic d├ętente was achieved. But on Monday, the International Business Times Web site published a report by Connor Adams Sheets, who darkly suggested a pattern at work: “My Twitter account was severely limited for a little less than an hour Monday afternoon in a pattern of what appears to be censorship sweeping across the social media site.”

Sheets reported that his Twitter account was idled “shortly after I published a story looking into infringements on the accounts of Twitter users who have been criticizing the National Defense Authorization Act and the Stop Online Privacy Act--or backing OWS or Anonymous--too fiercely.”

Sheets’ account was also restored to full functionality, but his IBT report mentions a disturbing consistency in what appears to have triggered Twitter’s takedown of other accountholders tweeting on the same subjects (read his full piece here).

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Prince Waleed bin Talal made a savvy investment in Twitter; it's too bad about these ... glitches that have suddenly become a part of his new investment.

After five years in business and with 100 million loyalists, the vast majority of whom tweet and retweet til heart’s content every day, Twitter has earned the benefit of the doubt. But what’s been going on lately hasn't been pretty. And for an evolving symbol of social media, it certainly isn’t very social.

Twitter user @Kalista told Sheets she tried to tweet Seaman’s piece, but got an error message instead — one that told her “Something is technically wrong ...”

Let’s hope that’s all it is.

Image credits: Twitter logo: © 2011 Twitter Inc. Prince Waleed bin Talal: AFP. Occupy Wall Street protest sign: Flickr, Jim Kiernan.

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