Law and Order: Social Victims UnitSome Twitter "crimes" are anything but

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Twitter's no different than any other hot social-thing-of-the-moment: if you're just getting into it, you'll find lots of people out there with advice on how to use it (including us).

But not all of it is couched as advice, recommendations or rules of netiquette. Many of those voices are framing their suggestions as directives... even iron-clad laws. One blog post warns that disregarding its suggestions amounts to "Twitter crimes".

May it please the court, I submit to you that many of those charged with Twitter crimes should be acquitted on the grounds of reasonable doubt - not just over their guilt, but over whether these should be crimes at all.

Here are four charges that the prosecution (in all its forms) is levelling... along with rebuttals from the defence.

1. The charge: Being followed without following back

The prosecution's case: If you don't follow back nearly everyone who follows you, you're being hostile, standoffish and rude.

The defence rebuttal: My learned colleague has mistaken an arbitrary convention for legislation... and an artificial numerical parity for justice.

Okay, let me drop the flowery language. Just because someone is interested in what you're saying doesn't mean you feel the same way. And we all have different ways of listening on Twitter: some of us follow thousands upon thousands of people, segment them into groups and dip in and out of a lot of conversations; others decide they'll focus their attention closely on a few conversations instead. Who's to say going broader is better than going deeper?

2. The charge: Linking your RSS feed to your Twitter feed

The prosecution's case: Twitter is for conversations, not broadcasting. Shovelling your content onto the web is just obnoxious.

The defence rebuttal: Your honour, if I follow Environment Canada's weather feed on Twitter, it's not so I can gripe about our recent hot spell; it's because I want to know what the weather's going to be like. The prosecution is making a classic mistake of thinking tools can only be used for the purpose for which they were originally created. For many people, Twitter isn't just a conversational forum - it's also becoming their alternative to an RSS reader. The defence is prepared to call witnesses from Social Signal who will testify that their most retweeted posts are often the ones tweeted automatically from their blogs.

3. The charge: Responding to celebrities

The prosecution's case: If you reply to celebrities, you'll look ridiculous... because what famous person is going to pay attention to you?

The defence rebuttal: My learned colleague from the prosecution wants to have it both ways. Apparently this is supposed to be a conversational medium... yet some are more worthy of conversation than others? Your honour, I am by no means a celebrity, yet I have had pleasant exchanges with them on Twitter. (Of course, most of my conversational salvos have gone unheeded... but that's to be expected when you're trying to catch the attention of someone following tens of thousands of people at once.) One of the great strengths of social media is its ability to flatten hierarchies - and fame is at least as vulnerable to that flattening as any other pecking order.

Incidentally, your honour, it often doesn't matter whether the celebrity sees a response or not. My friends do, and it can spark a conversation among us that goes off in a whole different direction.

One last point: we have one set of prosecutors telling celebrities to follow everyone who follows them because that's somehow conversational, and another set telling us not to engage in conversation with those same celebrities. The defence is preparing a motion to dismiss both counts on the grounds of whatever the Latin is for "get your acts together, people."

4. The charge: Asking people to retweet you.

The prosecution's case: If your tweet is worth repeating, people will do it on their own. Asking them to is just gauche.

The defence rebuttal: Your honour, my client understands that when she is asking people to retweet something, she's asking for a favour. She's asking them to spread the word - something we often do in other fields.

And the court will notice she is not deluging her friends with these requests; instead, she makes them judiciously, and repays her friends in kind.

Finally, she understands that these are requests, not demands. She asks politely, and only when she has something of value to share that she especially wants passed around.

In summation

It's up to you, the jury. Should these in fact be crimes - the punishment being merciless unfollowing? Or should these and other laws be struck from the books? Render your verdict in the comments below.

The defence rests.


JenC says

August 3, 2009 - 12:34am

You had me until 4. I can see your reasoning but I don't think that's what most people do. On the whole, asking to be retweeted is most definitely gauche.

Five More Ways to Avoid Getting Sued on Twitter says

August 21, 2009 - 8:26am

[...] Jailbird Image: Social Signals. Keep up with Dan Tynan on Twitter (@tynan_on_tech) or via Like this story? Tweet [...]

rkoski says

August 21, 2009 - 12:43pm

Nicely said. These apps are supposed to promote conversation! If everyone on twitter adhered to every 'rule', etc. out there it would make for a conversation none of us would ultimately want to be a part of.

As for #4 - if the situation calls for it, why not? I had a friend recently ask for re-tweet as a way of getting out a very timely animal adoption msg.



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