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Oct. 15, 2019, 2:33 p.m.

Twitter says it wants to solve the “journalists’ careers end because someone digs up an old tweet” problem

“These are some of the biggest reasons why people don’t tweet. Which is why we actually take this very seriously.”

Whenever the end-of-decade-nostalgia industry gets around to ranking The 500 Best Internet Memes of the 2010s, I hope that No. 1 is Milkshake Duck. Nothing quite binds together all that we love and hate about contemporary online life than a charming lactose-tolerant duck who, I’m sorry to report, also had some very bad tweets.

Journalists have milkshake-ducked any number of people whose sudden prominence sends the curious to Twitter Advanced Search. But plenty of reporters have also been milkshake-ducked themselves, often by groups with their own anti-press axe to grind. (Sometimes, you get both kinds of milkshake ducks in the same story!)

Twitter has a very particular place in this phenomenon, because it is simultaneously (a) perhaps the mainstream social platform that structurally most encourages the frequent sharing of brief tossed-off thoughts and (b) the platform least interested in rendering any of its content less than permanent. It’s got a robust search function; you can’t hide individual tweets, only an entire account; there’s no good way to keep some of your tweets limited to a small group of friends instead of the entire Internet; deleting old tweets takes a ton of tedious one-by-one clicking.

So it’s interesting to hear that Twitter’s thinking about changing things up and injecting a bit more ephemerality into Your Permanent Record. Product lead Kayvon Beykpour — who apparently got engaged this weekend, congrats! — spoke with The Verge’s Nilay Patel and Casey Newton on The Vergecast and talked about the company’s desire to make tweets more ephemeral. Here’s Beykpour:

…ephemerality, I view that as another dimension that is really important for some customers: for some specific set of circumstances where you want to talk to people, but you’re not quite sure you want it to last forever yet. And so I think as a dimension to focus on, as a specific customer problem, absolutely, I’m very interested in exploring how we might give customers more control. Where ephemerality is just one of those dimensions, I think there are other dimensions that, while we can get excited and talk about ephemerality because there’s lots of other standards of how other apps do this, I think other dimensions, like control around who can see or control around who can participate, is really critical…

…it’s actually quite difficult to have a fireside chat when you have a billion people screaming into your ear. Like. imagine we had tens of thousands of people in the studio with us right now, talking into our ear while we were talking to each other…I think that’s another dimension of how our conversations features work or don’t work today, that’s really important to us. That and ephemerality, I believe is up there as well. So, you should expect to see from us various product features because there’s no silver bullet for all of these things. But you should expect to see various product features that try and nail different intersections of the spectrum.

Casey then comes correct with the obvious solution:

I’ll tell you, my request is, I would love to set all my tweets to just go private after a year, basically. And the reason is just that cultural standards change enough that I either have to delete all of the tweets on a regular basis or I could just set them private, right? Because we’ve now seen bad actors sort of digging into peoples’ old tweets, taking them out of context and wreaking all kinds of havoc. So, I would just love a way to never have to think about that again, basically…

I mean, journalists’ careers end because someone digs up an old tweet, you know?

Beykpour:

Fear of speaking in public and fear of retaliation or fear of being harassed and harassment means many different things to many people. Or fear of being held accountable for something that is not what you meant. These are some of the biggest reasons why people don’t tweet. Which is why we actually take this very seriously.

There are many different product solutions. Auto-deleting tweets is something that we could do. We have thoughts on other things that we could do, as well. The point is, this problem, we’re hyper-conscious of and we believe that getting people to feel comfortable talking in public is critical…We’re super interested in coming up with multiple solutions to solve it.

Nilay asks whether that could mean auto-deleting tweets after a certain time. Beykpour:

I do think it’s a form of ephemerality, for sure. I would say it’s a — don’t take this the wrong way — I think it’s a less interesting solution to the same problem. But it’s absolutely a form of ephemerality, but we’re interested in exploring a couple other solutions that have the same potential effect of you not having to worry about what you say lasting forever, but giving you some of the other control that I think is missing. Because I don’t think the ephemerality alone solves the most important problem, but we may realize that we should still offer that. I’m not dismissing it, I just think that we’ve got some other ideas around how we might solve it in interesting ways.

Here’s the full audio of their conversation:

Beykpour took over the job in summer 2018, becoming the sixth (!) person in that job since 2014. (He’d previously been CEO/cofounder of the livestreaming app Periscope.)

Ephemerality has been the new hotness in tech for a while now — from the early days of Snapchat’s rise (driven by auto-deleting messages), through the expansion/theft of Stories by Instagram and Facebook, to chat apps like Signal. Mark Zuckerberg has spoken before about the importance of people not feeling there’s a heavy weight attached to every online utterance.

On the other hand, we in journalism have an institutional bias for permanence — 100-year-old newspapers, “the paper of record,” and all that. I get a little angry when I need to refer back to something I saw on Twitter a few weeks ago and find that — because Twitter doesn’t offer any better tools — the person who tweeted deletes everything over a few days old. Linkrot is the bane of any online researcher’s existence.

But there’s some evidence that bias for permanence may be shifting. We wrote last year about how Cleveland’s daily paper has started thinking about cases where its Google-friendly record of an old arrest might be doing real and unjustified harm to someone. A number of sites have stopped or sharply limited the use of police mugshots, viewing them as unduly stigmatizing someone who, after all, might not have committed a crime at all.

The wild world of online content creation seems to have come around to the idea that there’s real harm done by having all your past mistakes one keyword search away from someone with ill intent. Here’s hoping Twitter can figure out some method that balances the public’s access to information and our every utterance available to haunt us, years down the line.

POSTED     Oct. 15, 2019, 2:33 p.m.
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