The nature of the bargain: your organisation, Facebook and Twitter

Dave Winer has been developing a theme of open systems on his blog over several months. Today he looks at the recent French decision to prohibit media promotion of web services run by companies:

In the United States, the media are making a huge mistake re Twitter and Facebook by treating them as if they were open systems like the web or email. In fact, and they know this, they are corporations with eponymous services.

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In France, in the spirit of being open to competition, the government has prohibited the media from using the names of the services unless the story is specifically about the company. I think this is very smart, compared to what we’re doing and not doing here.

In the United States, not only do the media treat Twitter and Facebook as if they were public utilities, like the open web, it’s actually even worse. The Library of Congress, which is part of the government, is subsidizing Twitter, by doing a complete archive of Twitter, before making a serious attempt at archiving the web. This helps cement Twitter as the medium of record, which is ridiculous. The market is just getting started. How can you justifiy the government taking sides over other equivalent (or better) ways to communicate, that are not owned by a company (like the web, for example). If this isn’t against the law, to use taxpayer funds to help a company achieve dominance over competitors, it should be against the law.

You can read the rest on scripting.com.

I regularly use Twitter and Facebook and sometimes recommend them to organisations for certain projects as part of the work we do at NativeHQ. But that doesn’t mean I’m entirely trustful of these and other services for the long term. These are free-of-charge-to-user services provided by companies and paid for by advertisers. Furthermore they offer very few ways of exporting your data or contacts and moving to a rival service, should you want to.

That’s a very different deal from, say, buying a domain name, some hosting and setting up a blog or wiki which you control, which is independent of any company (even, say, WordPress or Twiki if you’re running the code independently) and which can be backed up. Or, setting up a subdomain and running something like status.net, the open source Twitter clone, within your organisation or community. In practice the core code for those systems is free of charge but you will spend money getting them set up and maintained. My point is the freedom and control you get with them.

So should we use the free-of-charge hosted services like Twitter and Facebook, the services which don’t bring the freedom? For cost-free web services, it’s difficult to make a categorical decision which applies to all cases. Even the paid web services (like Flickr, which has a mixture of free-of-charge and paid premium users) suffer downtime, get acquired, modified – and sometimes closed. Long-term reliability could be one of the things you’d be looking for and these weaknesses reduce the score, at least in that category.

I have a feeling that a lot of the innovation we will see in the next few years will be focused on replicating the feel and capability of some of these social media services in a way which is distributed across the web – small pieces loosely joined – just like websites are. The closed systems provide the initial idea, the impetus will come from business opportunities and individual will and the result will be open systems of many kinds which restore power and control to the users. That might sound less convenient than the comparatively slick centralised systems we have now. But I believe developers will find a way to make it work in a friendly way.

But that’s where the prediction ends. As befits the NativeHQ blog, this is a practical blog post about what you can do now.

So for now if you want to be where the people are in 2011 centralised systems like Twitter and Facebook can feasibly – but not always – have an important role to play.

When and if? As with many questions on which our work here hinges, it depends. I can say with certainty that the benefits to you will come at the possible expense of some of the weaknesses and the potential problems. And I owe it to the people we work with to be clear on that.

How you use these tools is important too. Here’s just one example: are you putting your organisation’s news and information on Facebook only, perhaps on a Facebook page or worse still, your own personal profile? You could be missing a whole bunch of people  – particularly if they’re not habitual users of Facebook, are using Google search, are on your website, are looking at your email newsletter or any number of other places. You also miss some of their comments and restrict the visibility of the conversation. In that case I would look at putting your content on the web and then sharing a link on Facebook instead. For programmers it’s the difference between passing along a reference and passing along the data, the values. It will probably make your content more accessible – appearing in a Facebook feed as well as being on the open web, with all the benefits that brings.

Why Every Company Is A Media Company (via Mashable)

Check out this intriguing post Why Every Company Is A Media Company (from Mashable blog) about a small restaurant which dominates at least one Google search query – by having a website with some interesting, relevant, “human” content.

If you’re using businessy or corporate speak on your site, it’s a good opportunity to reconsider. People are mostly immune to that. People like real voices!

BBC Takes Back Control of Rogue Twitter Account (Lessons for Brands)

Yesterday I wrote about Twitter name squatting and included a recent example where a rogue person had registered the name BBC on Twitter.

Earlier today Twitter Inc handed the account to the real BBC, after a BBC staff member complained to Twitter Inc. It’s been cleared of all previous tweets and all 7,684 followers.

It’s now impossible to follow the original links and see what happened. So here are some screenshots to illustrate my point about the importance of brand control. All were taken on 28th January 2009 just after 5PM.

Message to fake BBC Twitter account

The screenshot above shows an @ message sent to the BBC Twitter account.

Reply from fake BBC Twitter account

The user @sputnik101 was surprised to see this reply from the BBC Twitter account. Like many people, including me, he was unaware that the BBC did not have control over the account. In that sense, like many others, he’d be duped into thinking he was following the real BBC. It’s generally expected that large corporations will protect their trademarks and copyrights to prevent this happening.

First available tweet from fake BBC Twitter account

I tried to see how long the BBC account had been in third party control. Above is the earliest tweet I found – from 9th October 2008.

Some replies to fake BBC Twitter account

As far as I could see the message to @sputnik101 was the only @ reply from the impostor posing as the BBC. But many other people sent @ messages to the account about many different topics. You can see just one page of search results above.

We don’t know if the rogue posing as the BBC sent any private direct messages to any of his or her thousands of followers, in the four months he or she had control over the account. It would have been possible.

BBC take control of Twitter account

Today the real BBC have control. So do head over and read what they’re posting from the new look, genuine @bbc. If you’re on Twitter you can follow them too.

This BBC story is an excellent example of the need to control your brand name on Twitter. If someone has your brand name, particularly if it’s a trademark, you should complain to Twitter Inc by sending a message to @crystal in user support.

If your name or brand name is still available, then register a Twitter account today to prevent somebody else taking it.

It’s also worth using usernamecheck.com to check the availability of your name on a variety of other popular sites.

At Native our purpose is to advise companies on good use of online and social media. This is advice we give to all our clients. As such, the BBC story is given here purely as an illustrative example. I’m not going to labour this point – there are many other examples of Twitter squatting but I won’t be attempting to catalogue them all.

I do believe that Twitter squatting could lead to examples of phishing and other nastiness if companies are lax about this. Unfortunately the onus is largely on them to monitor this. (If you’re concerned about this or you want more information, call us.)

In this example, on the surface it would appear that the rogue was attempting to provide a useful service – by pulling in the legitimate RSS feed from BBC News. But it would be easy to do this for other purposes – including phishing – to give an appearance of authenticity to an account. The legitimate feed could easily be combined with a feed from elsewhere (using an RSS aggregation service such as Yahoo Pipes).

BBC Impostor Fools 7,684 People (Control Your Twitter Name, Even if You’re a Twitter Sceptic)

[ UPDATE 29/01/09: Some of the links here no longer work because the real BBC have taken control of the rogue Twitter account. Read this post for screenshots and updated info. ]

Fake BBC Twitter account

There’s enough hype saying you need to use Twitter. Just as TV presenter Phillip Schofield and other celebrities are discovering, there are few barriers to investigation. If you’re curious then just sign up, post a couple of tweets, start following a few people and see what happens.

What I will say is, whether you care about Twitter or not, you must protect your name or your brand.

Domain name squatting has been happening for years. Twitter is starting to tip and a similar thing has been happening there. Lots of people are reserving other people’s names, whether for pranks, experimentation, promotion of other projects, revenge, financial gain or reasons known only to them.

For instance, in December it took several days before we were sure that the Twitter account for Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was being run by an impostor. The poor spelling and writing style had me suspicious – but he or she still managed to gather a couple of hundred followers and dispense some tweets of pithy wisdom. It was mostly good-natured, but the risk of damage to the Archbishop was still there. (The account has been taken over now and is dormant.)

Again, back in December, tech blogger Mike Butcher of Techcrunch UK admitted to stealing the account name of Andy Burnham, the UK Culture Secretary after a grievance involving Burnham’s opinions on net regulation. (I happen to agree that Burnham’s opinions were misguided, but I’m illustrating another point.) That one’s been suspended by Twitter Inc now. If Burnham had been quick to reserve his own name, it wouldn’t have happened.

(Incidentally, there are very few real politicians registered on Twitter, let alone actively using it. In Wales, we’ve seen the Plaid Cymru AM Bethan Jenkins and the Lib Dem candidate Alison Goldsworthy.)

This is not confined to individuals, it includes companies and brands as well. Lots of well known brands are taken by fakes.

Now most recently and amazingly, the name BBC on Twitter is being run by a third party, who have made no explicit indication that it’s unofficial. The fact they are pulling in a useful feed of current BBC news stories adds weight to the deception.

Look at my screenshot above. The account has 7,684 followers. This is very dangerous indeed for the BBC’s reputation.

Normally, only an eagle-eyed user would notice, with suspicion, that the only people they’re following back are Sky Sports, Manchester United football team and something called Funny Times. Or would click the profile link to discover the following disclaimer:

The news published on http://www.twitter.com/BBC is syndicated content taken directly from the BBC News website vie their public RSS feed found here. The account is not operated by the BBC but is offered for your convenience so that you may receive the latest news stories from the BBC website whilst using the Twitter Service.

Now though, someone called @sputnik101 discovered this when he complained to the BBC account about their broadcast policy on the DEC charity appeal for Gaza.

He then received a surprising and somewhat inappropriate reply. Here’s more on that story.

As you can see from the comments, somebody at the BBC has finally had the sense to complain to Twitter Inc to ask for the account to be suspended or handed over.

Here at Native, we like Twitter as a communication platform – and have got a lot of benefit from it in terms of contacts, information, useful links and smart conversation. Fortunately the culture of Twitter engenders authenticity and the confirmation of an account being fake, once known, can be spread very rapidly. But now that newer people are joining and taking time to learn how it works, the potential for deception is huge.

If you don’t fancy using it, make sure nobody uses it on your behalf.

If following this advice means registering for Twitter and – at least for now – leaving the account idle with a brief explanation, so be it. Here’s an example.