Understanding and Navigating Twitter Notifications and Privacy

In our previous instalment, we learned to use Twitter in a way that promotes context, attribution, and tidiness in the timeline.

This time, we will learn to improve your experience and privacy with regard to the notification system.

To cut to the chase, the following actions on Twitter trigger an alert in another user’s Notifications feed:

  1. Following them.
  2. Adding them to a list.
  3. @replying to them.
  4. @mentioning them.
  5. Retweeting them.
  6. Faving their tweet.
  7. Linking to their tweet.

I have bolded the triggers I consider non-obvious.

Linking to a tweet was a surprising notification trigger to me; linking is the most innocuous action on the goddamn Internet. This basic, fundamental action now comes with caveats that discourage tweeting for many users.

I can understand that Twitter’s lord and master is #brands, but it is beyond me how users don’t get a choice in the matter.

On Twitter, linking has become a privilege.

Moreover, did it occur to Twitter that we may not want to see everything people tweet about us — especially when they think we are out of earshot?

The Private, Public, and Public-Private

When you inadvertently alert someone to a private conversation of yours, the private becomes public. Of course, everything on Twitter is public by some definition of the word, albeit with an expectation of privacy similar to conversing in a bar, restaurant or café. When someone shows up to talk — or reply — to you, they had better have a good reason for their imposition.

These environments, like Twitter, are what I would describe as public-private. There is such a thing as privacy in public.

If reading this post up to this point has made your eyes glaze over, I am going to assume you are either a guy, white, part of a gender-sexual majority, or someone who won’t be perceived a Muslim.

Because, to these people, privacy is safety.

(I meant to embed a profound tweet someone once posted of the different reaction to a viral article and tweet for men vs women. Couldn’t find it.)

Twitter don’t seem to get online safety either, probably because the environs of decision-making fit into the same privileged, oblivious demographic, which results in an Kafka-esque reporting system beyond embarrassment, as detailed in WAM!’s extensive report.

(If you don’t already know about how deeply broken Twitter’s reporting system is, then you haven’t really been paying attention.)

An important, but separate, discussion is the concept of a “public figure”, which is an oft-used justification for denying someone a private space and publicizing their public-private conversations on Twitter. This argument is a common sleight of hand used to harass women and deny them public existence and peace of mind on the basis of their, perceived, popularity or heterodoxy.

Metrics Are at Often Odds with Privacy

When #brand engagement, metrics and monitoring reign supreme, privacy gets thrown out the window to placate #brands who want every conversation to be made public to them — and to placate disgruntled Twitter investors who want every user action on Twitter to be measured and datamined in the hopes of stumbling over a profitable business model.

👀 https://twitter.com/JarettSays/status/626154366295257088

Unfortunately, the same monitoring tools are available to everyone else.

Subtweets As Safety Tweets

“Subtweeting” has been a tongue-in-cheek remark on noticing someone referring to something or someone discussed on Twitter as opaquely as possible. Only people familiar with the context would pick up on the message. It was like an office joke, because you had to be a part of the watercooler community of Twitter to get it.

Subtweets were an invitation to solve the mystery of what someone was referring to. But the obfuscation of subtweets also bears another characteristic: they increase safety from retribution.

Subtweets are also a safety mechanism.

Some of us are so privileged that the concept of defence mechanisms is alien to us. But for others, life requires them to keep adapting to new challenges, be they digital or analogue.

And Twitter excel at making small changes that surreptitiously worsen the platform experience.

Security by obscurity is a well-known concept; subtweets provide safety by obscurity. Like its security counterpart, safety by obscurity is not bulletproof, but it plays to the weakness of human nature:

Most aggressors are dumb, lazy, and intemperate.

If you ever wondered why people don’t use the word “Gamergate” in their tweets, it’s because assholes monitor the word and pounce on anyone outside the misogynist echo chamber.

As a result, defence mechanisms and vernaculars develop.

And as usual, all of this is news to Twitter HQ.

Enter the Subscreenshot?

Or “subshot”? Anyway.

Not too long ago, people responded to Twitter’s implementation of displaying media previews in the timeline by creating image-based pull-quotes and excerpts for the content they were sharing.

The media also caught on to this, and dubbed it unspeakable, ridiculous names for which they should forever be ashamed. It also spawned a nifty iPhone app.

In light of the new behaviour of Twitter links and Notifications, however, they now also serve the purpose of sharing a tweet without triggering a Notifications alert. There is nothing convenient about this, though.

While this is very fascinating, it demonstrates the constant game of safety whack-a-mole that at-risk users must play to adapt to Twitter’s changes. Changes that are not, and probably never will be, informed by the plight of people who don’t look like the non-diverse echelons of decision-making.

Privacy from a Developer and User Perspective

So how exactly have Twitter screwed up with their opaque Notifications, if we can be as specific and helpful to their developer team as possible?

The most succinct description of the concept of privacy, and one of my favourite quotes, is by Steve Jobs:

Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for.

The reason privacy nuts like myself tend to ask for features to be made opt-in is because no sane person will neither know nor remember all the settings for a service. The settings will usually be a mess to navigate — sometimes by design, as with Facebook.

Pop quiz! Off the top of your head, do you know how to disable Google remembering your search history? Do you know how to disable targeted ads from iAd? Do you know whether your location is included with the content you share on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram?

When a service’s privacy sucks, your information leaks, sometimes by design, but often out of sheer cluelessness and indifference. It leaks, because it happens passively; it is not stolen by someone; the information is merely left out in the open for the taking and gawking.

The Danish Context

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but this is what disabused me of my laziness:

Translated: “If we had any doubts before, we definitely know now that [the political party] Venstre supports TTIP [tweet link]. I imagine R, K, and LA will follow suit.”

That’s the foreign minister of Denmark faving a tweet of mine. My miscalculation was linking to his tweet.

(The foreign minister is the Danish Secretary of State — how’s it hanging, John Kerry!)

Of course, I live in Denmark where the short distance between constituents and politicians is an admirable, laudable advantage. But Denmark’s size is also inversely proportional to private space; when Americans say Washington is reading your tweets, they mean figuratively, not literally. In Denmark, people prefer to use Facebook, so monitoring a discussion is entirely feasible in Denmark. There is no noise to hide in.

Politicians deserve credit for engaging in democracy and meeting their constituents digitally or physically, especially at a time where our collective faith in parliament is declining steadily, giving rise to fringe none-of-the-above parties.

But there’s engaging, and then there’s sliding into your mentions. We’ve already seen extreme examples of this in Turkey, but also in the US where the governor of Kansas started a feud with a hapless teenage girl over some innocuous remarks made in the public-private forum of Twitter.

As chance would have it, one of the worst Danish political offenders in sliding into people’s mentions is our new justice minister, a tough-on-crime fellow who’s also a repeat offender in sexist remarks towards dissenters.

And bear in mind that it is technically illegal in Denmark to express approval of terrorism pursuant to § 136b of the Danish penal code.

When we interact in the tiny, silent space that is Danish Twitter, we must bear in mind the implications of conversing in a place where you can hear a pin drop.

Once again, I am left feeling that Twitter just don’t get it. And never will.

For others, it continues to be imperative to their existence to get it.

Be safe out there.

Further Reading