Direct Message Read Receipts: Another Desperate Mistake For Twitter?

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Essential modernisation. A good way to demonstrate that you’re proactively ignoring someone. A stalker’s charter… These are some of the reactions to Twitter’s introduction, on 8th September 2016, of Read Receipts for Direct Messages. Although Tweeps can opt out, Twitter automatically opted users into the new system without warning, consent, or in many cases, even knowledge.

Because the ‘receipts’ have not yet been added to the desktop version of Twitter (and are in any case subtle in nature), many people will not have any idea that their message-reading habits are being monitored by other users. Twitter’s failure to obtain user consent for something with such significant privacy implications, will surely sound alarm bells among online privacy advocates.

SETTING THE SCENE

Twitter’s behaviour has not been particularly admirable of late. Auto-junked multiple times by Microsoft Outlook after spamming hordes of non-solicitables with Olympics-related emails, Twitter has, this summer, found itself looking more like a frustrated Viagra tout than a professional social network. But the decision to implement Read Receipts has clearly raised a much greater controversy. A LOT of Twitter users do NOT like this, and they’ve been making their voices heard.

WHAT IS A READ RECEIPT?

A Read Receipt is a tracking tool. It tells the sender of an electronic message that their communication has been opened. So if you send me a DM on Twitter, and neither of us have opted out of Read Receipts, you’ll know when I open your message.

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WHO NEEDS READ RECEIPTS?

That’s a very good question. What sort of people do actually need a read receipt? Communications between friends are not really associated with tracking tools. If you know you’re going to get a reply to a message, you’ll take the reply as your ‘read receipt’. But there are other fields of electronic communication in which senders expect most recipients of their messages not to reply. Those senders will definitely have a use for ‘read receipts’. But who are they?

If you take an interest in privacy matters, you’ll know that web-bugging electronic communications (inserting hotlinked content into emails in order to record when recipients open them, forward them, etc) is rife. But this is not the preserve of “family and friends”. The technology behind this is pushed not at leisure and personal users, but at businesses.

So the introduction of a parallel system on Twitter probably has very little to do with chat between friends, and much more to do with… Brace yourself… Marketing. Whilst I’d agree with those who’ve suggested that Twitter Read Receipts will benefit stalkers, I think there’s another S-word which describes a much larger group of people who’ll be positively drooling at the thought of this… Spammers.

If you thought Twitter’s DM spam problem had reached its excruciating crescendo, you might need to think again.

Whether Read Receipts deter or encourage DM spammers will depend on the number of their messages that people open. However, spammers do not need much encouragement, so if they establish that any significant number of Twitter users actually open their messages (even if only to delete them), they’re likely to scale up their efforts – not scale them down. An increase in DM spam could push what’s already a nauseating scourge into a new circle of Hell.

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TWITTER’S ONGOING PRIORITY

There seems little doubt that Twitter is trying to pander to ‘marketers’ with this measure. If you often check out the opinions of leisure users on Twitter, you’ll have been noticing regular requests for new features. An increase to the character limit is the most common request I’ve personally seen, but there are many more, such as edit facilities, better protections against trolls, etc.

But never have I once seen any leisure or personal user suggesting or asking for any form of read receipt. Twitter is not accommodating the will of the leisure userbase here. Twitter is, predictably, accommodating the will of aggressive, stoney-faced, breathing-heavily-down-their-noses, ‘business users’… Whilst tipping a friendly nod to stalkers in the process.

WHAT WILL THE IMPACT BE?

The problem with the introduction of DM Read Receipts has not been the concept itself. It’s been the fact that Twitter has implemented a user-to-user tracking system on an opt-out basis, without expressly informing, and without seeking consent.

What other user-to-user tracking systems could the site introduce? “See who visited your Profile Page”? Little floating popups that tell you which interesting users saw your Tweet?… Who knows?

This kind of stuff sounds great when you’re the one getting the information. But it’s not nearly so enticing when you flip it around and you’re the one being spied upon.

One of the reasons behind Twitter’s success is that, until now, it hasn’t created the kind of privacy paranoia that Facebook instills. But with the Read Receipts update – particularly given the privacy-insensitive manner in which it was introduced – we look to be entering an era of ‘what if?’s and ‘who’s watching?’s. Twitter cannot afford for users to clam up, stop using the site’s private features and go back to email. Now that the character limit has been extensively raised for Direct Messages, the DM system presents a wonderful opportunity for Twitter to mine masses of valuable data. That’s blatantly at the forefront of the business’s thoughts. But disrespecting users’ privacy needs is perhaps not the best way to maximise the opportunity.

I haven’t even clicked on a DM since this clumsy and insensitive update. Yes, I know – you can opt out of Read Receipts, and I’ve done that. But how can any of us trust a website that doesn’t even inform us when it introduces a form of personally-indentifiable, user-to-user tracking? We can’t, obviously. This is the damage that results from a failure to gain privacy consent… on the back of multiple instances of deliberately ignoring users’ privacy choices – as with the summer Olympics spam.

It’s not a good look, Twitter. It’s not a good look.

Author: Bob Leggitt

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