SF Gate is reporting this morning in its blog, “The Tech Chronicles,” that Twitter has been attributing fake tweets to real users. There is little information about how this happened and Twitter is working to fix the problem. At any rate, what can we learn from all this? And what other issues are lurking here that you should be aware of?
Be Respectful of Your Users
There is something to be said that the differentiator these days between companies is not your products or services, but the relationship you have with your customers. If you think about the legions of iPhone users out there today, or even the Mac users of yesterday, you can see one example. Back in the days before the resurgence of Apple after the release of the iMac, the company survived on the relationship it had with it’s users, not with products. Stand down Apple fans. I was one of you too, then. The products were inferior and the software product pre-Mac OS X barely made up for it. The relationships kept the company going long enough to engineer their turnaround.
Respect breeds trust, and fosters a two-way relationship. You have to respect your customers enough to listen to them and the more you listen to them, the more they will trust you. All your work can be ruined in an instant, though. The day you lose sight of that relationship key is the day you think that abusing your users for fun and profit is ok.
There are two possibilities in the issue reported by SF Gate. First, that they actually did try to attribute statements to real users to show how the Twitter platform integrates with TV commercials. That they felt that dummy handles, or official Twitter handles wouldn’t look good in the screenshots they showed. If this is the case, someone clearly got it wrong. The more likely is that the screenshots they showed was generated with test data piping in. That this was a developer mock-up and if asked they would have told someone to not use this for real. A case of moving too fast. I think the latter is probably more likely as testing new functionality invariably involves using existing systems and data.
We will see what their apology looks like. If anyone from Twitter is following this blog, head on over to my post about effective apologies and do something great with your apology.
Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should
Looking back over Twitter’s terms, I actually think that what they did here is allowable. At least a case can be made that it is. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think they should have but let’s look at if they can. Here is a quote block from the Terms that I think could be used by a crafty lawyer:
Such additional uses by Twitter, or other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Twitter, may be made with no compensation paid to you with respect to the Content that you submit, post, transmit or otherwise make available through the Services.
We may modify or adapt your Content in order to transmit, display or distribute it over computer networks and in various media and/or make changes to your Content as are necessary to conform and adapt that Content to any requirements or limitations of any networks, devices, services or media.
There is a great argument to be made as to who owns your username, or handle, on Twitter. There is nothing in the Terms that talks about it. Is my username, @solomolaw, a creative creation of mine. If so, it might be a copyrightable work. If it is an expression of a trademark of mine, you might be able to argue trademark infringement.
Your legal ability to do something doesn’t give you the moral right to do it, however. Think about your users. Think about how they will react. Even if what you do as a platform provider is take their content off your platform and put it on a banner in Times Square, are they really going to like that? Is there a better, easier way to do that? What about thanking them for using the service, praising them about something they posted and telling them what you are doing with the content. I would also suggest giving them a chance to opt-out of the use. You don’t have to do this, but an email is an easy thing to send. If they don’t get back to you, you then can fall back on your lawyer-ly terms and conditions.
Copyright Law to the Rescue
There is a concept in copyright law called moral rights that I think might be implicated and give you a legal pause over activities like this. Within moral rights is something called the right to attribution. As Wikipedia states, “[I]t is widely regarded as a sign of decency and respect to acknowledge the creator by giving [them] credit.” In this Twitter case, it is almost attribution in reverse. Twitter created something copyrightable, the actual tweet, and then attributed it not to themselves, but to a real user. They are trading on your good name, not their own. If you have any thoughts about the copyright implications on this one, drop me a note in the comments or email me at email@example.com. I am also curious as to how much a modification would need to be made before you start to mirror this fact pattern. Just curious.
SPOILERS: I will be talking about copyrights as a way of protecting your creations in a few days. If you want more of an understanding of that, come back then.
Don’t Rush to the Courthouse
It seems that in the United States that whenever wronged, we rush to the courthouse to sue. To get our quick buck. I think this is totally valid when someone intentionally does something. I don’t think this is the case here. Dollars to donuts, this was a simple mistake of coding and the product manager not asking questions about the content of the screenshots they were looking at.
How to Not Do This Yourself
So you are promoting your product, service, company, or yourself. You have a great automated system and want to show it off. How do you avoid having to perform elite-level legal gymnastics to justify and explain why it was ok. Here are a few tips:
- Ask where the data came from that fed the system.
- Better yet, build a test data-set to run from.
- Let someone outside the project look at it and let them ask whatever questions they want.