For a while now, Twitter has been testing its own t.co link shortener to shorten/wrap long URLs in private Direct Messages sent between users via their website (transparently to the user, btw – you can read more in their June 8th blog “Links and Twitter: Length Shouldn’t Matter“ – a blog that is hosted by Google’s Blogger network and that I doubt most Twitter users don’t even know exists). In a recent email to users, dated August 30, 2010, they explain that the use of t.co will be expanded to all messages, including those sent via 3rd party applications, and that the length of the shortened URL may vary based on the application/device the receiving user is using, to quote:
“A really long link such as http://www.amazon.com/Delivering-Happiness-Profits-Passion-Purpose/dp/0446563048http://t.co/DRo0trj might be wrapped as for display on SMS, but it could be displayed to web or application users as amazon.com/Delivering- or as the whole URL or page title.”
As a primarily TweetDeck user, the advantage is minimal to me – it already has a function that shows you what a shortened URL expands into. There is also a “post-click, pre-connect” malware check to ensure that you are not connecting to a bad site – again a feature that I already have in my browser.
But the way that they internally use the t.co link shortener is what causes me concern. All links, including those in private DMs (as well as those already shortened through services such as bit.ly which will be “wrapped” internally by Twitter in the t.co format), will be tracked on a per user/per click basis, allowing Twitter to create a data repository of what links you click, the type of content you are accessing – from news to product/vendor sites – and potentially who sent them. Their justification is “Twitter will log that click…to provide better and more relevant content to you over time.”
Sorry, Twitter, but I don’t need or want you to provide content to me. I follow people, not you, for content and conversations. And I’m far from thrilled that you will now start keeping track of the links users click in the name of providing relevant content, which could be interpreted to mean anything from suggested users to follow to targeted advertising to whatever you decide is most profitable (it’s the “whatever” that concerns me, as this is potentially valuable marketing information that could be sold to/exploited by 3rd party groups).
Everybody understands that what you publicly post is public, but there is also an expectation of privacy with respect to Direct Messages that are not part of the public timeline, not searchable and not shared with 3rd-party search engines (a variation on their “protected tweets” theme). The thought of Twitter tracking content in private Direct Messages – which have become an alternative to quick email exchanges for many people – leaves me with a Facebook-like “invasion of privacy” feeling.
Will I stop using Twitter? No, its value still out-weighs its disadvantages. But I will start to view it in a different light and will probably be less inclined to click on sponsored or vendor-oriented links.