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Is There A Need For An Auto-Delete Service For Twitter?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 28 October 2010

Is Twitter “For The Moment”?

Last month’s post on opting-out of Twitter archives generated some discussion on Twitter from a handful of people who felt that tweets shouldn’t be archived at all.   In the discussion (which I won’t cite!) there was a suggestion that tweets should auto-delete after a short period of time. Such an approach fits in with a view that Twitter is “for the moment“.

An auto-deletion approach has been taken by the #NoLoC service. This has been set up by those who are concerned about the US Government (actually the Library of Congress) archiving of tweets. Users who register with the #NoLoC service give permission for this service to delete tweets which contain a specified hashtash after 23 weeks – one week before tweets are archived by the Library of Congress.

Although this service has been set up for one particular context it made me wonder if this approach could not be generalised. Could a service be developed be developed which allowed users to specify a period after which their tweets would automatically be deleted, together with hashtags which would identify tweets to be deleted after this period?

Someone who normally uses Twitter for professional purposes but also tweets about football might tag such tweets with #footie and requests that such tweets be deleted after a few days. Or if you are going to a party or music festival you might specify that tweets with #party or #festival are deleted the following day.

This suggestion is generalising the approach taken by the #NoLoc service and providing the flexibility to allow the user to have control over the time period and hashtag. And unlike the Twitwipe service (which deletes all tweets from a user’s account) provides users will control over how and when their tweets are deleted.

However although this approach (which would probably need to be provided by a trusted organisation as you are giving rights for your tweets to be deleted to another organisation) will ensure that tweets are deleted from Twitter (and also not archived by the Library of Congress if the deletion period is less than 24 weeks) it doesn’t delete tweets which have been archived by other services (including services such as Twapper Keeper and Google).

Thoughts On Approaches to Auto-Deletion of Tweets

If Twitter is an important part of the information landscape (which I feel it is) there will be a need to address issues such as privacy and content management at a more fundamental level – and the view that archiving isn’t important or shouldn’t be done ignores the fact that it is being done and judging by the Twapper Keeper usage statistics published in our recent paper:

As of 1 July 2010 the Twapper Keeper archive contains 1,243 user archives, 1,263 keyword archives and 7,683 hashtag archives. There are a total of 321,351,085 tweets stored. The average number of tweets ingested per second is from 50 to 3,000 per minute (around 180,000 per hour. or 4.32 million per day). Since Twitter itself processes about 65 million tweets per day the Twapper Keeper service is currently processing about 6-7% of the total public traffic.

But how might a distributed environment for respecting Twitter users rights to be able to delete their tweets from Twitter and from conforming Twitter archiving services?

Would it be possible for a Twitter API to enable tweets deleted by an authenticated user from a Twitter archive to also be deleted from Twitter? And could tweets which have been deleted in Twitter (perhaps from a remote request) to then be deleted from other archives?

Of course this would not stop people from capturing tweets in other ways, or for Twittering archiving tools to fail to respect such a protocol. But this is also the case with the robot exclusion protocol – robot software from search engines which respect the protocol will not index files which have been excluded in a robots.txt file in the root of a Web server. But such excluded files are still openly available and robots which don’t respect this protocol can still index the files. However in reality most users will use trusted search engines which have implemented such a widely accepted standard.

Is such an approach technically possible today? And, if not, would it be possible if Twitter provided appropriate APIs?

Or Maybe We Should Simply Accept Twitter’s Openness

Of course there might be an argument that such developments are pointless – tweets will be treated as public property and so there’s simply a need to accept this. Or perhaps an alternative to Twitter could be used by those who still have concerns. What would be needed would be a walled garden which made it difficult for content to be accessed by other applications with permissions which allowed various levels of access control, such as access by friends, friends of friends, etc.

Hmm, I wonder if Facebook could be the answer :-) More seriously, perhaps we will find that different services are used by people in different ways – and I know I have read how people may use Twitter for open discussions in a work context and Facebook for closed discussions with friends and families. Perhaps rather than overload Twitter with complex content management mechanisms we should simply accept that Twitter is an open environment, with the risks and benefits which openness provides.

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7 Responses to “Is There A Need For An Auto-Delete Service For Twitter?”

  1. Les Carr said

    I think your final comments are really important: if you don’t want your comments to be put in public and treated as such, don’t use Twitter.com.

  2. Tony Hirst said

    Years ago, folk used to use Usenet news a lot. The protocol was a bit like a bucket brigade – nodes would pass messages on to other nodes and a message would trickle round the world and then disappear…

    …only they didn’t. Someone was archiving the messages, possibly under an ethical license… and then somebody bought the archive. And then someone else bought the company that had bought the archive. And so on… and now we have Google’s usenet news archive searchable the Google way: http://www.google.com/googlegroups/archive_announce_20.html

    When stuff gets published on the web:
    – you can’t guarantee it won’t be archived;
    – you can’t guarantee that the terms under which the content is archived will continue to be the terms under which it will be used and/or made available in the future… (I thought legal covenants were one instrument that could try to protect future interests of a resource, but I suspect that lawyers get paid far more than I to find ways round any that do exist, if indeed anyone remembers they exist…)

  3. In North America, twitter has become part of the political landscape, with officials, sitting members and candidates tweeting as a way to get their message out. This is one area where there could be a significant historical interest in keeping a record of who said what and when they said it.

    ;)

  4. There is significant use of Twitter in the political landscape in the UK too, with the Tweetminster service aggregating such tweets.

    If there was a way of controlling access to tweets I could see politicians looking to manage access to their tweets, particularly embarrassing ones. And we would also see others trying to keep an archive of such tweets.

    As Tony Hirst has pointed out, history has shown us that you shouldn’t expect to be able to control information published on the Internet. I’d agree with Les Carr: “if you don’t want your comments to be put in public and treated as such, don’t use Twitter.com

  5. Interesting thoughts thank you.
    I believe there is chance for information policies to become increasingly relevant in this decade.

  6. Hello. NoLoC.org is just a specific use of a greater concern of long-term retention of “real-time” shared data. This is truly a new mode of communication that individuals of all ages are utilizing. While some may cite the Usenet as an example of an online permanent record that cannot be modified or deleted due to its unregulated syndication/distribution, there is absolutely no comparison between Usenet adoption and social media adoption.

    This new communication paradigm clearly encourages people to share ideas freely with one another in real-time. I take no issue with this new method of communication — in fact, I embrace it for both personal and business use. However, my concern is that individuals are not taking into consideration the ramifications of having every one of their social media updates stored indefinitely, without the ability to delete that data.

    The permanent archives are not run by individuals. Currently, the only entities that are capable of housing such comprehensive archives are companies like Twitter, the US government (Library of Congress), Google, etc. There are already technical mechanisms in place that allow for updates to be deleted; however, it is becoming more difficult (or impossible) for those deletions to take place. (e.g. 6 month embargo before tweets are sent to Library of Congress archive, Facebook only allowing deletes from client software that published original update or via browser on facebook.com which requires manual interactions)

    Here are some changes that I would like to propose in the greater interest of users:

    1. We have the ability to opt-out of the Library of Congress archive on Twitter.

    2. We have the ability to have our “DELETES” recognized after the 6 month window, so that any archived tweets are also deleted from the Library of Congress archive.

    3. We have the ability to set a default time-to-live (TTL) or expiration date on our social media updates on all social networks

    We should be more engaged with how our data is being utilized and retained, and not just acquiesce to the terms of service. There are many valid reasons for not wanting social media updates to hang around in perpetuity. As political persuasions change, your tweet may put you in a position of vulnerability. As children continue to publish more candid information about their personal lives, their tweets may be used against them in numerous ways such as bullying by their current peers, to further down the line as they become young adults applying for programs or jobs.

    I just want to challenge you to think beyond “public is public” and “those are the terms of service.” This is not the Usenet. The technology *IS* available to allow for status/update/tweet deletion at the network level. I would like to see users empowered with the ability to control their social media data, rather than to see this control taken away.

    Thanks,
    Neil Mansilla

  7. Note on 10 July 2014 I became aware that the link to the page at to http://www.google.com/googlegroups/archive_announce_20.html no longer worked. It also seems that the the #NoLoC service is no longer valid (it is a parking domain). In answer to my question “Is There A Need For An Auto-Delete Service For Twitter?” the answer seems to be ‘no’!

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