Twitter is going to have to learn the lesson that newspapers had to learn when they started accepting advertising: that when trust is your asset, you must run your service and your business according to principles of trust. Newspapers built church/state walls to demonstrate that they could not be bought by sponsors’ influence. Twitter needs that wall. Every tech company fancying itself a platform does. Or it can’t be trusted and won’t be used and will lose value. Those are the economics of trust.
Twitter’s killing of a journalist’s account threatens to be a defining moment for the company, as Dan Gillmor warned. The details are nearly meaningless. Independent writer Guy Adams was very critical of NBC’s coverage of the Olympics (as I have been and many have been, using #nbcfail as our gathering place and megaphone). Adams published the corporate email address of NBC Olympics chief Gary Zenkel and then Twitter killed his account. But the email address was hardly private — it had been published online and follows NBC format: firstname.lastname@example.org. Adams was not informed of the complaint and given the opportunity to delete the tweet, as Twitter’s rules require. Indeed, Adams found out that Twitter initiated the complaint, not NBC. And what’s the harm, really, to NBC: that its viewers can talk to them? NBC should welcome that. And the furor certainly spread Zenkel’s email far wider than any tweet.
No, the real issue here is that Twitter entered a business deal with NBC and its parent, Comcast, for the Olympics. That, in Adams’ word, puts NBC and Twitter in cahoots with each other. So now do other users have to worry about biting the hand that feeds Twitter?
I asked Twitter repeatedly for what it has to say about this and held off writing this post until I gave up on getting a response. I still hold hope that Twitter will come to its senses, recant, restore Adams’ account, apologize, and learn a lesson.
For this incident itself is trivial, the fight frivolous. What difference does it make to the world if we complain about NBC’s tape delays and commentators’ ignorance?
But Twitter is more than that. It is a platform. It is a platform that has been used by revolutionaries to communicate and coordinate and conspire and change the world. It is a platform that is used by journalists to learn and spread the news. If it is a platform it should be used by anyone for any purpose, none prescribed or prohibited by Twitter. That is the definition of a platform.
In political matters, Twitter has behaved honorably. It famously delayed a maintenance shutdown so as not to cut off communication at a crucial moment in the Arab Spring. It has fought government subpoenas to get information on tweeters in protests and regarding Wikileaks.
But now in business matters, it acts in a suspect manner and that is worrying for Twitter and moreso for its users.
Twitter needs to decide on, declare, and live by principles. I believe it needs to prove to us that it is not beholden to sponsors any more than it is to governments. It must fight for our trust or it will lose its value to us (and its shareholders). This is why Google was wise to decree that it should not be evil. It is a good business decision.
Now I fully understand the irony of my beginning this post using newspapers and journalism as a model. We in my industry have squandered our trust, not so much through direct advertiser influence but through short-sighted economic thinking: pandering to the perceived mass — with celebrity, sensationalism, and the view from nowhere — to build sales and traffic over substance; devaluing our product by cutting the wrong things when faced with competitive pressures; lacking the strategic vision that would carry journalism into the digital economy. This is a case of do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do, I’m afraid.
In a Twitter discussion this morning, Dave Winer and I parried on whether the tech industry needs to become the journalism industry or whether the journalism industry needs to become the tech industry. I’m not sure where that lands. I do see tech companies — Twitter, Tumblr, Google, Facebook, and more — hiring journalists. I see journalists using and relying on — perhaps too much — these companies. I see an opportunity for them to work together to set a line where we can build a new wall between church and state, between business and trust, by establishing principles that platforms — indeed, the internet itself — must live by.
I have nothing whatsoever against making business and journalism businesses. I believe they must be businesses to be sustainable. But they must be responsible businesses. They must learn where their value truly lies. That is in trust. Squander that trust and you lose it all.
Twitter has another moment to learn and then teach that lesson. Please.