When tweets become ads, or how Twitter continues to blur the line between speech and publishing

In the grand scheme of things, it was just a tweet, much like any other — except, of course, that it came from New York Times movie reviewer A.O. Scott. That was apparently enough for CBS Films to make it the centerpiece of a full-page ad for “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Was this a new experiment in native advertising from the cash-strapped Times? Not really. Instead, it was just another example of how Twitter (s twtr) continues to blur the lines between speech and publishing.

When Scott responded to the ad on Twitter, he seemed somewhat bemused by the whole thing: although he has undoubtedly grown used to having his review comments become “blurbs” in such ads in the past, he said that watching his offhand tweet get turned into ad fodder was a bit perplexing.

Once you tweet, you lose control

One additional wrinkle, as New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan noted in a post on the topic, is that CBS Films specifically asked Scott for permission to use his tweet in their ad, and he refused — and yet the movie studio went ahead and used it anyway. Not only that, but they edited his original tweet and then doctored the ad to make it look like nothing was missing.

Of course, movie studios selectively edit reviewers’ comments and then use them in advertising all the time, in order to make them seem more complimentary than they really are. The only real difference in Scott’s case is that both of these actions — editing a tweet and using a person’s tweet in an ad without their permission — are forbidden by Twitter in its “guidelines for broadcast,” which state:

“In all cases, without explicit permission of the original content creator, Twitter content may not be used in advertising [or] to imply endorsement of any product or service.”

As my colleague Jeff Roberts and others have pointed out, Twitter can’t really prevent you from embedding or republishing a tweet wherever you want, regardless of what the company says — especially since the ban on advertising without permission appears in its guidelines and not in its official terms of service, which has a little more legal weight. In any case, tweets are public by default, and therefore it’s difficult (if not impossible) to control what happens to them.

That’s not to say Twitter isn’t going to try, however. In some ways, the Scott case highlights the fine line the company has to walk when it comes to behaving like a public utility vs. operating a privately-owned publishing platform or media entity. Twitter makes a point of telling users that “you own your tweets,” and yet it is simultaneously trying to monetize the platform that publishes them. And in order to do so, it needs to control how tweets can be used — even though doing so is a little like trying to control the wind.

Twitter would probably have preferred it if CBS Films had paid the company to promote a tweet related to its movie, or cut a deal with Scott and/or the New York Times to use his tweet for promotional purposes. Instead, it just cut and pasted his tweet and paid the NYT a reported $70,000. That’s what happens when you run a public platform that blends speech and publishing.

It feels like speech, but it isn’t really

Apart from the legal or ethical aspects of the NYT movie-ad case, one thing I found interesting about it was Scott’s response to the ad. Why would having his tweet become a blurb be any different than having a sentence from a movie review turned into one? He didn’t really say, but I think it stems from the way many of us treat Twitter as a conversation — in other words, it feels more like we are just talking to friends (or possibly to ourselves) rather than actually publishing something.

In reality, of course, posting things to Twitter definitely qualifies as publishing — and that means our words don’t just disappear the way speech does, but continue to exist (theoretically at least) forever, and can therefore be archived or aggregated or re-published in almost any way you could imagine, including republication as a full-page ad in the New York Times.

Sullivan wonders in her column whether that imposes a duty on journalists to watch what they say on Twitter in case it gets mis-used by someone, but really it’s something we may all have to confront at some point or another. How will we feel when our own tweets appear in ads, or show up on the evening news? And should that change the way we behave, or the way we look at Twitter as a platform?

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / iQoncept