Twitter: A Vampire That Can Legally Suck the Life Out of You

The Latest Changes to Its Terms of Service Make Clear the True Price of Using the Microblogging Platform

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Oh, those clever birds at Twitter. When the microblogging service announced recent changes to its terms of service, its executives knew exactly how to spin the news. For starters, media outlets dutifully went with headlines along the lines of "Twitter Changes TOS, Opens the Door for Ads," because in a blog post about the changes, Twitter founder Biz Stone chose to make the most noise about the possibility of advertising. Granted, the actual legal language was rather broad ("The Services may include advertisements, which may be targeted to the Content or information on the Services, queries made through the Services, or other information. The types and extent of advertising ... are subject to change."). A folksy "Tip," inserted on a nearby colored box, read: "We're leaving the door open for exploration in this area but we don't have anything to announce."

STONE: Can do whatever he wants with your content.
STONE: Can do whatever he wants with your content.
Such is the obsession with Twitter that sort-of news about possible maybe eventual news is ... big news.

Still, to fans of Twitter who want it to survive -- and who have been somewhat perplexed by what had almost begun to seem like an allergy to revenue -- the new ad-friendly stance was sort of a relief (if also an eventual presumed annoyance). Meanwhile, for those users who delved into more of Twitter's own take on its new TOS, there was the further revelation that the Twitter gang was, it seemed, definitively declaring that you own your own tweets. Also a relief! Right? Well, no.

The actual legal language reads: "You retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services." But then it adds, "By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, nonexclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed)." Yet another folksy "Tip" offers a friendly translation: "This license is you authorizing us to make your Tweets available to the rest of the world and to let others do the same. But what's yours is yours -- you own your content." Gosh, that "Tip" is so reassuring it actually does a pretty nice job of discouraging users from wandering back into the dense thicket of official legalese, where more clauses like this abound: "Such additional uses by Twitter, or other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Twitter, may be made with no compensation."

Let's back up to February, when Facebook made changes to its TOS with similarly scary-broad references to possible reuse of material that users post or upload. It's somehow almost a quaint memory now, but at the time the Consumerist blog caused a media firestorm with a post titled, "Facebook's New Terms of Service: 'We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever.'" Facebook was forced to clarify its intentions, declaring, for starters, that "We are not claiming and have never claimed ownership of material that users upload." (Twitter clearly learned a lesson vicariously.)

But the fact remains that Facebook, and now Twitter, have given themselves pretty wide-ranging rights to do what they please with what you upload, regardless of the fussy, quibbling technicality of "ownership." In fact, Twitter's weasely "on or through the Services" language -- what the hell does "or through" mean? -- seems designed to throw a particularly massive net over your content.

Why does this matter? Well, imagine if Facebook and Twitter were in transportation rather than social networking. Like, if instead of supplying you with a digital vehicle for your social-networking excursions, they were supplying you with an actual vehicle. Their lawyers would surely craft language that ("Tip"!) more or less means this:

You totally own your car -- it's yours! It belongs to you! -- but we can borrow it any time, we can paint it hot pink, we can rent it out to other people, we can put a giant Depend adult diaper ad on the hood and an "ACTIVIA KEEPS ME REGULAR!" bumper sticker on the back, we can fill the glove compartment with guacamole, and we can even poop in the trunk if we feel like it. ... But hey, it's YOUR car!

"Wait a second!," Twitter defenders might say. "Twitter's free, and we shan't look gift horses in the mouth!"

But the thing is, it's not free. As with Facebook, you power it by feeding yourself into its digital maw. It's called lifecasting because it's life-powered. For Twitter and Facebook to work, millions of people have to ritually sacrifice some greater or lesser portion of their actual personal lives (their inner thoughts morphing into public personas, and vice versa) -- in the form of random musings, expressions of affection and disdain, intimate details, memories, as well as often ridiculously revealing communications with friends, colleagues and strangers -- and of course they do. Post by post or update by update, it can feel merely tossed-off, negligible, but in aggregate more and more people are offering up goodly chunks of themselves.

When my colleague Michael Learmonth reported last week that Facebook is now making money, he wrote, "Key to Facebook's profitability has been its ability to keep its headcount low. [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg points out in his blog post the company employs one engineer for every million users. The company has only 1,000 employees serving a user base that is quickly surpassing the population of the U.S."

How is that possible? Because YOU -- and 300 million others like you -- are doing all the goddamn heavy lifting!

And not only do you get no sweat equity in services like Facebook and Twitter, but they can poop in the trunk of your virtual car.

But hey, it's your virtual car, so drive safely ... and enjoy the ride!

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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter (oh dear!) @simondumenco

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