Yesterday was the Big Geek Day Out to Alton Towers, and was, of course, a day full of drama and adventure. I was one of seven people to be accidentally culled from twitter (although now restored, thankfully), disastrous on a day when communication between people whose mobile number you don’t necessarily know is essential.
This started me thinking about how much we rely on services like Twitter, and how they control access to our data and communications channels. Even though my culling was only accidental, and was restored within 24 hours, whose to say that it won’t be longer next time, or that restoration might not be complete and data might actually be lost, or that it will be accidental. Information stored in my DMs might exist nowhere else and disappear forever. I have information in DMs that exists nowhere else. I would struggle to find even 50% of the people I follow. Many of my followers wouldn’t know how to find me if I was no longer at twitter.com/emmapersky.
This problem is not restricted to twitter. Any service which we use of communication or information management is liable to the same problem. Facebook links me to hundreds of people I know, but people whose contact information is only stored there. Friends who I see once a year are do not become detached, they are just a few clicks away.
Is it foolish of me to store all of this information like this? Yes, but do I have a choice? Not really. Facebook’s restrictive information policies do not let me export the email addresses of my contacts (although I could, and probably should, go through them manually). Twitter, on the other hand, allows me to export my friends lists (through the api), but I don’t receive any contact information useful outside of twitter.
Both Twitter and Facebook have sections in their Terms and Conditions which allow them to terminate user accounts. Yes, when you signup to one of these services you agree that they can delete you from their service, without reason. Twitter’s Terms of Service provides for this in it’s Terms of Service with a simple line
We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason at any time.
The Company may terminate your membership, delete your profile and any content or information that you have posted on the Site or through any Platform Application and/or prohibit you from using or accessing the Service or the Site or any Platform Application (or any portion, aspect or feature of the Service or the Site or any Platform Application) for any reason, or no reason, at any time in its sole discretion, with or without notice
serious stuff. Twitter and Facebook can actually remove anyone from their portion of the internet at any time without reason.
Why is this? Because the contract between us is basically one way. They give us service for free, and thus they are not obligated to do anything more. This notion does not only apply to Twitter and Facebook, but almost any service you use for free on the internet.
In contrast, many real world services have contracts between provider and consumer that are full of conditions explicit on the provider. They must conform to a number of conditions such as informing consumers of changes in the conditions, providing a minimum level of service, etc.
The fundemental difference between these types of services is money. When you pay for a service, the contract between your and the provider is just as stringent on them (otherwise you probably shouldn’t hand over your cash).
I would be certainly strongly consider a small payment to use twitter if it meant that I was entitled to a contract with obligated them to a higher level of service, including not deleting because they felt like it. Is this a viable alternative business model for free service websites outside of the traditional (well, recently traditional) model of displaying advertising to users to generate revenue. Can free services move away from distracting adverts? Can websites really charge for their use? If you ask me, yes then can.