Twitter's users up in arms over lack of service, policy enforcement

Whether it's Twitter's apparent affinity for being down more than it's up, or "twitterers" claiming the site's not enforcing its terms of service, the site is getting an awful lot of flak lately.

In fact, the criticism is becoming so loud that the company decided this week to tackle the public's concerns head-on. It seems the service's quickly attained reputation for unreliability may actually have become the defining element of the "Twitter experience."

Last month, the problems started a crescendo with the disclosure of some users' private "tweets" being broadcast publicly. Then, users put their lives and livelihoods on hold, at least for the duration of extended service outages, during which members were unable for minutes at a time to discern what rooms the rest of their friends around the world were in, or whether they were standing or seated.

Lately, the downtime has become the subject of sites such as istwitterdown.com, a site created by website designer Ryan King. Simply put, it pings Twitter to see if its up or down, and then gives the answer -- in pure Twitter fashion -- in one word: "Yes" or "No."

"Part of the impetus for this public discussion [about downtime] extends from the sense that Twitter isn't addressing our architectural flaws," Twitter said in a post to its corporate blog. The company argues that such a belief is not quite accurate.

Developers have been working on the issues "on and off" (literally) for over a year, but they said that significant portions of the site need to be rewritten in order to handle the new realities of Twitter usage.

Simply put, it seems that when Twitter was created, it wasn't built as a messaging system, but rather a content management system. Obviously, the needs and demands for messaging are significantly greater than that of content management. Thus a slow process of swapping out old components has begun. Twitter will not however perform a "big rewrite" -- meaning all old code will come out at once -- so service interruptions may continue well into the future.

Despite the service's propensity for openness, Twitter's management now sounds like it's not taking suggestions from the community. "We appreciate the creativity that the technical community has offered up in thinking about our issues, but our issues won't be resolved in an afternoon's blogging," it said.

Outages, unfortunately, are not Twitter's only problem: It also is now dealing with users upset that the service does not appear to be doing more to protect them. A prominent example would be blogger Ariel Waldman, who was allegedly a victim of harassment via tweet.

Starting in June 2007, Waldman -- who is now community manager with Pownce and well known in tech circles -- began receiving harassing messages on Twitter as well as photo-sharing service Flickr, apparently from the same source. She reported the incidents to community managers at both Twitter and Flickr. But according to her account as reprinted by Mashable, Flickr took immediate action, she said, while Twitter appeared to be unwilling.

But nothing would stop the harasser, apparently. The torment continued throughout the year and into 2008 before Waldman had enough. Characterizing the problem as a Terms of Service (TOS) issue, she made a case of it before company CEO Jack Dorsey.

In a March phone call, Dorsey pushed back, Waldman reported, saying there was little they could do to stop the perpetrator, and questioned that it was a violation of TOS. He later added that, after consultation with its attorneys, Twitter would refrain from getting involved.

"Thanks, Twitter. It's great to know that your Terms of Service that you force everyone to agree to don't mean anything," she said in her blog.

Apparently this post was enough for the company to respond publicly, which it did on Thursday.

"Some people think we should ban one person if another person is unhappy with the content -- or more specifically, if they personally define that content as 'harassment.' In the case being discussed, we didn't perceive a violation of our Terms after a careful review," it shot back.

"This speaks to our larger stance that Twitter is a communication utility, not a mediator of content."

In a post to the customer service forum Get Satisfaction, Waldman said her lawyer informed her she could not sue Twitter based on the offensive content of one of its users, assuming that service makes a positive, reasonable effort to prevent offensive content from appearing in the first place.

But Twitter co-founder Biz Stone responded that Twitter is not in a position to appoint itself judge and jury in every harassment issue that comes along.

"The fact that so many of us can have differing opinions without having even reviewed the content we're discussing highlights the difficulty of this issue," Stone wrote. "In fact, Twitter recognizes that it is not skilled at judging content disputes between individuals. Determining the line between update and insult is not something that Twitter nor a crowd would do well."

In its effort to join Google as the latest Internet service to become a verb, Twitter may be quickly falling victim to its own success. It may soon find itself in further trouble with its user base over even more issues, unless it can find a way to address customer concerns in a manner that can't be construed as condescending.

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