Twitter is evolving on privacy

Gabriel García Márquez once wrote,’Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life’, which is more that poetic: it is a reflection of human society (see Secrecy, Privacy, Publicy).

Twitter has been one of the most ideologically pro-publicy companies, actively making private conversation difficult, and ruling out private group discussions completely. (Publicy is my term for ‘Publicness’, which seems clunky, or ‘Publicity’, which has acquired other connotations.)

In my reapplication of Márquez’s tripartite world view, Twitter’s private messaging would be better called secret messaging, since it is a/ between two people and not b/ visible in any other way to any other people. As you’ll see later private should be reserved for communications in a private group, where individuals need to be invited to participate in group communications. Nonetheless, I will use the term private messaging as commonly understood.

Mike Isaac at AllThingsD reports on discussions with an unnamed Twitter spokesperson regarding the company’s plans for private messaging. The motivation for these discussions is a new tack that Twitter is rolling out, a relaxation of an annoying limitation in Twitter today, where only people I follow can DM me (send me a private message). The new implementation will allow people following me to DM me, which is going to sidestep what has become a commonplace:

  1. someone tries to DM you but since you aren’t following them they can’t,
  2. so they @mention you saying ‘I can’t DM you because you don’t follow me, so follow me’,
  3. and you follow them,
  4. and send them a DM,
  5. and then they send the DM.

Interestingly, I have had a few go-arounds like this in which I discover that the person isn’t following me, either, so step 4 fails.

The implementation requires opt-in in your Twitter settings, like this:

Screenshot 2013-10-18 07.53.44


The concern is that this can lead to increased spam, and the counterargument is that Twitter has mechanisms to fight that, already, like marking posts as spam and thereby blocking the spammer.

In quick order Isaac runs down these points:

  1. In the distant past, Jack Dorsey and others were so adamant that Twitter should be all public that they had planned on phasing out direct messages altogether. But now they are convinced that the weaknesses of their private messaging is one of the factors leading to lower-then-desired engagement.
  2. They’ve considered breaking out private messaging as a separate app, based on the success of WhatsApp, Line and others.
  3. Snapchat’s high popularity is an issue, and influenced Twitter’s recent Android in-message illustration feature.
  4. Twitter met with MessageMe earlier this year, which suggests merger discussions.

The Bottom Line

I recently wrote about things Twitter might do to increase engagement, which was directly pointed at this topic: Twitter should go private: private Twitter accounts, I mean. In that analysis, I made this argument, which goes way beyond a better DM experience:

Private Twitter – Twitter is one large namespace, with everything defaulting to the open follower model. And that is a wonderful thing. However, sometimes people want to communicate behind closed doors, and the only mechanism for doing that in Twitter is direct messaging, a feature that is extremely limited and not very Twitter like. DMs are one-to-one communications only, and don’t ‘feel’ like streams as a result. (Twitter should implement group private messaging, for a monthly fee, too.)

I propose that Twitter consider the implementation of private twitter domains, which would be either for-fee or advertiser-supported. The functionality would allow a business, for example, to use a twitter subdomain — like — to which users would have to be invited, or perhaps gain access by confirmation of a company email address ([email protected], for example).

Note that by default, every user would discover (on the day they turned the service on) that they possessed a private twitter subdomain — like — based on their existing user Twitter handle. They could opt not to do anything with it, or to start using it.

The owner of the account would be able to invite others to join, or turn on company email address verification. Once logged in, users would be able to connect and communicate with other co-workers using the standard open follower model, use and follow hashtags (as discussed above), and best yet, create project- or group-oriented contexts that could be private to those invited. This would allow Twitter to compete in the enterprise social network market, where it already has a toehold.

Most businesses would opt for a for-fee use, since that would give them administrative controls. But small businesses, non-profits, and freelancers might decide to simply see ads streaming by occasionally, or plastered on the walls of their streams.

(There are also immediate opportunities for the cross-communication of private and open Twitter, too complex to develop here, but that would represent an area for other marketing and customer-facing services, as well.)

I repost this at length because I wonder if they are contemplating this downstream of their push into better private messaging. We’ll have to see.