Twitter’s fake ads reawaken the existential angst we feel about using cloud services

Twitter got a little carried away with itself in a recent blog post about its new ad-targeting feature, which allows advertisers to show ads to users who mention a specific TV program. The post contained a screenshot of the analytics that come with the feature, and included a number of testimonials from users — but unfortunately for Twitter, while the users were real, their testimonials were not, and they weren’t happy about it at all.
Neil Gottlieb, whose Twitter account was used in the ad mockup, told the San Francisco Chronicle — which first reported the fake tweets — that he was planning to meet with a lawyer to discuss the possibility of legal action related to Twitter’s use of his picture, and said he wasn’t satisfied with a tweet of apology from Twitter’s advertising account or a comment on the top of the blog post that said the company was sorry. Gottlieb told the Chronicle:

“Totally unacceptable tactic they employed and response. Not an adequate accountability statement in my view. Twitter’s lack of accountability in an industry where privacy is of utmost importance is concerning at the very least.”

Twitter said through a spokesman that the fake tweets were simply a mistake. But even though the incident looked like a slipup by a subordinate in the marketing department, who likely published something before they were supposed to, it still seemed to trigger a lot of angst among users — judging by the number of comments about it and retweets of the Chronicle post.

You don’t really own your content

One reason why the slipup might have sparked that kind of reaction is that it reinforces how little control users have over the content they publish through web services like Twitter and Facebook. Although Twitter makes a point of saying that users “own their tweets,” it has taken steps in the past that seem to belie that promise — including blocking access to some tweets when asked to do so by certain governments.
Twitter says it only does these kinds of things in extreme cases, but things like the TV ad-targeting mixup reawaken a lingering feeling of unease. That’s because the terms of service that most of us click on and agree to unthinkingly give Twitter and Facebook and other cloud services effective ownership of our tweets and photos and updates, and broad rights to use them however they wish. Technically they probably aren’t supposed to make up statements and then attribute them to us, but plenty of other uses are allowed that might suit them rather than us.
Instagram triggered a similar outpouring of cloud-related angst when it changed its terms of service in a way that suggested it planned to sell users’ photos for use in advertising. The company said it wasn’t planning anything of the sort, but not before a storm of outrage. And plenty of other cloud services, particularly photo-related ones, have been through a similar experience. Every time, someone has to point out that most terms of service look about the same, and give those services fairly wide latitude to use your content.
It’s an uncomfortable reality of the social web: in order to use these services, you have to effectively give up ownership of your content — or at least rent it out to them, in return for the free features they provide. You can ask them nicely not to do certain things with it, or even sue in some cases, but that doesn’t change the fact that they essentially control what you post.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Eugenio Marongiu and the SF Chronicle