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The Dustbin of Twistory


When Twitter began exploding last Sunday night in the run-up to Obama’s big speech, one of the first things I did was set the tweet-harvester my husband has invented to start collecting all tweets on the hashtags #OBL and #Bin Laden. My thought was to archive them for study, search or at least word cloudage later, much as I did with the Tahrir square tweets or the ISA2011 conference hashtag twitter feed.

For Sunday’s bin-Laden coverage, I only ran 100 iterations in 5-minute increments, but still ended up with 140,465 tweets at #OBL and 236,046 at #bin Laden. Stu ran a similar search of his own over a longer period using search terms instead of hashtags and is now sitting on over two million tweets, what he calls a “first draft of history.” (Indeed. Though in fact this is only a small sample of the total tweets occurring during the speech, the highest volume ever.)

Yesterday, Stu’s company began giving away the archive for free to researchers or journalists:

On the May 1, 2011 evening it was announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed, we started running repeated fetches against the Twitter API for the terms “osama” and “bin laden”. On May 3, we posted more than 1.2 million tweets in XML format. Since then, the live feed collection on DiscoverText keeps rolling along. The results are frankly more Tweets than anyone might ever need to understand this slice of the the micro-blogging public sphere during a critical juncture in world history.

Now get this: Twitter has contacted DiscoverText and insisted he stop giving away the data. Nick Judd at TechPresident has the story:

Shulman’s scholastic interests appear to be directly opposed to Twitter’s, which has an obligation to protect both its commercial viability (all it has to sell against is the content passing through its platform) and the privacy of its users. Facebook, which limits the use of its API to store user data for prolonged periods, has a similar stance.

I see a couple of interesting issues here.

First, it’s not entirely clear what Twitter’s concern is, but it’s probably not over “user privacy.” Judd is conflating Facebook, which is in theory a closed community where users get to choose who sees their updates, and Twitter, whose feeds are open to anyone who follows anyone, where users don’t get to choose who follows them, and where any tweet is essentially in the public domain (and users understand this). The kinds of FB privacy issues I’ve often blogged about (and which I’ve raised mightily with Stu with respect to his tools being used on FB data) just don’t make much sense in the Twitter case. Am I missing something?

Looking at Twitter’s actual communication to DiscoverText, it looks like they’re concerned with the terms of service, which do prohibit “redistributing… Twitter content… to any third party… without prior written approval from Twitter.” Oops. Guess I violated that rule when I cut and pasted jacksonjk’s tweet about the OBL story last Sunday night. So has any blogger who has ever taken a screenshot of a tweet and posted it, or any news article that has ever relied on a tweet as a news source or treated one as a news story. Maybe this incident will be one among many that cause Twitter to reconsider that rule in light of the way in which tweets are actually used.

For now, DiscoverText has taken the archive offline pending a resolution of the issue, but Twitter hasn’t said anything about dissemination visualizations of the data, so for what it’s worth here’s a word cloud of a sample:

What are reader’s thoughts? Is Twitter data proprietary? Is it private? How so? Will the world be better or worse if online tools make the collection and analysis of crowd-sourced coverage of political events easier to more quickly sift, sort, mine and understand? Could this power be abused? How is this connected to the evolving relationship between social media, conventional media, science, politics and military operations?

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