The good sense of Web anonymity

Nathan Pensky · September 20, 2011 · Short URL:

Twitter gets it... Why doesn't anyone else?

There is an old adage that originated from a 1993 cartoon caption that said: "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog." The cartoon came to symbolize the unnerving aspects of Internet life - people could interact with general anonymity.

But as we've moved toward more stringent rules around user verification over the last 15 years, we've lost a little bit of the innocuous benefits of being unknown.

Twitter seems to understand this well. One important benefit concerning Twitter's social networking anonymity is that social networking anonymity should be recognized in its capacity to actually encourage actual socializing, which after all is the point.

Of course, it is also a neutral quality, leaving the ebb and flow of ideas (and the accompanying flow of advertising dollars) unscathed, regardless of their being connected to real names. This point was made well by GigaOm's Matthew Ingram. His prevailing thesis can be summed with the sentence, "the social web is about reputation and influence, not necessarily names."

Twitter - a 'real' productivity tool

The opportunity Twitter offers to interact with peers in a given work-day is a real benefit to productivty. Flow-charts mapping out workplace efficiency rarely provide for the fact that the interconnectivity offered by the Internet can be severely draining, that an equal capacity to provide ephemeral distraction can serve as a tonic to such influx.

Perhaps more than any other kind of work, office employment needs a release valve for the stresses that come along with being productive, efficient "team players." Stepping away from team mentality, or even associations embedded in one's own true workplace identity, can make all the difference between getting the job done and burning out.

Logging on to Twitter for a quick peek at trending topics or who has RTed your last joke about Charlie Sheen is the digital version of stealing unseen into the courtyard for a cigarette break. Such personal moments, which enable a de-personalization where office identity is concerned, can actually give workers the sanity they need to do their jobs more efficiently.

But without the anonymity of a fake Twitter handle, or at least one not easily Google-able by "the Man," the day's important micro-breaks would not be possible.

Ingram references how the U.S. Congress has proposed beefing up the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, such that "exceeding authorized [computer] access" would carry heftier penalties than ever before. Such infractions would include overstepping a website's terms of use, breaching a given company's workplace rules about internet use, or (you guessed it) creating fake names on Facebook.

A Wall Street Journal article by George Washington University legal scholar Orrin Kerr was cited, where he posited that under these stricter laws, misuse of Facebook could be ruled as a felony.

But Twitter clearly takes a different tack on the necessity of real names in social networking. Internet Culture analystClay Shirkey cited Twitter in his belief that "persistent" pseudonyms are just as good as real names, where social networking concerns actual users. Said Shirkey, "I need to associate who's saying somethiung to me now with previous conversations... If you give users a way of remembering one another, reputation will happen, and that requires nothing more than simple and somewhat persistent handles."

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said in a press event on September 8 that from an advertising standpoint, the targeting of ads toward individual users via keywords likewise doesn't rely on real identities. Said Costolo, Other services say you have to use your real names, because they think they can monetize that better and get more information about you." Twitter could not be reached for immediate comment.

(Image source: Jailbreak Scene)

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What is Twitter?

Twitter is an online information network that allows anyone with an account to post 140 character messages, called tweets. It is free to sign up. Users then follow other accounts which they are interested in, and view the tweets of everyone they follow in their "timeline." Most Twitter accounts are public, where one does not need to approve a request to follow, or need to follow back. This makes Twitter a powerful "one to many" broadcast platform where individuals, companies or organizations can reach millions of followers with a single message. Twitter is accessible from, our mobile website, SMS, our mobile apps for iPhone, Android, Blackberry, our iPad application, or 3rd party clients built by outside developers using our API. Twitter accounts can also be private, where the owner must approve follower requests. 

Where did the idea for Twitter come from?

Twitter started as an internal project within the podcasting company Odeo. Jack Dorsey, and engineer, had long been interested in status updates. Jack developed the idea, along with Biz Stone, and the first prototype was built in two weeks in March 2006 and launched publicly in August of 2006. The service grew popular very quickly and it soon made sense for Twitter to move outside of Odea. In May 2007, Twitter Inc was founded.

How is Twitter built?

Our engineering team works with a web application framework called Ruby on Rails. We all work on Apple computers except for testing purposes. 

We built Twitter using Ruby on Rails because it allows us to work quickly and easily--our team likes to deploy features and changes multiple times per day. Rails provides skeleton code frameworks so we don't have to re-invent the wheel every time we want to add something simple like a sign in form or a picture upload feature.

How do you make money from Twitter?

There are a few ways that Twitter makes money. We have licensing deals in place with Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft's Bing to give them access to the "firehose" - a stream of tweets so that they can more easily incorporate those tweets into their search results.

In Summer 2010, we launched our Promoted Tweets product. Promoted Tweets are a special kind of tweet which appear at the top of search results within, if a company has bid on that keyword. Unlike search results in search engines, Promoted Tweets are normal tweets from a business, so they are as interactive as any other tweet - you can @reply, favorite or retweet a Promoted Tweet. 

At the same time, we launched Promoted Trends, where companies can place a trend (clearly marked Promoted) within Twitter's Trending Topics. These are especially effective for upcoming launches, like a movie or album release.

Lastly, we started a Twitter account called @earlybird where we partner with other companies to provide users with a special, short-term deal. For example, we partnered with Virgin America for a special day of fares on that were only accessible through the link in the @earlybird tweet.


What's next for Twitter?

We continue to focus on building a product that provides value for users. 

We're building Twitter, Inc into a successful, revenue-generating company that attracts world-class talent with an inspiring culture and attitude towards doing business.