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Being the product

Twtter-bird-upside-down-370.jpgThe past week of Twitter has been marked by a general sense of waiting for the crash, heightened because no one knows when the bad thing will happen or what form it will take. On Twitter itself, I see everyone mourning the incoming loss and setting up camp elsewhere; on professional media journalists are frantically trying to report on what's going on at HQ, where there is now no communications team and precious few engineers.

As noted here last week, it is definitely not so simple as Twitter's loss is Mastodon's/Discord/s/SomeOtherSite's gain.

The general sense of anxiety feels like a localized version of the years of the Trump presidency - that is, people logging in constantly to check, "What's he done now?" Only the "he" is of course new owner Elon Musk, and the "what" is stuff like a team has been fired, someone crucial has quit, there's been a new order to employees ("check this box by 5pm or you're fired!"), making yet another change to the system of blue ticks that may or may not verify a person's identity, or appearing to disable two-factor authentication via SMS shortly after announcing the shutdown of "20% of microservices". This kind of thing makes everyone jumpy. Every tiny glitch could be the first sign that Twitter is crumbling around the edges before cascading into failure, will the process look like HAL losing its marbles in the movie 2001: A Space Odyseey? Ot will it just go black like the end of The Sopranos?

I have never felt so conscious of my data: 15 years of tweets and direct messages all held hostage inside a system with a renegade owner no one trusts. Deleting it feels like killing my past; leaving it in place teems with risks.

The risk level has been abruptly raised by the departure of various security and privacy personnel from Twitter's staff, which led Michael Veale to warn that the platform should be regarded as dangerously vulnerable and insecure. Veale went on to provide instructions for using the law (that is, the General Data Protection Regulation) rather than just Twitter's tools, to delete your data.

Some of my more cautious friends have been regularly deleting their data all along - at the end of every couple of weeks, or every six months, mostly to ensure they can't suddenly become a pariah for something they posted casually five years ago. (It turns out this is a function that Mastodon will automate through user settings.) But, as Veale asks, how do you know Twitter is really deleting the data? Hence his suggestion of applying the law: it gives your request teeth. But is there anyone left at Twitter to respond to legal requests?

The general sense of uncertainty is heightened by things like the reports I saw of strange behavior in response to requests to download account archives: instead of just asking for two-factor authentication before proceeding, the site sent these users to the help center and a form demanding government ID. There seem to be a number of these little weirdnesses, and they're raising users' overall distrust of the system and the sense that we're all just waiting for the thing to break and our data to become an asset in a fire sale - or for a major hack in which all our data gets auctioned on the dark web.

"If you're not paying for the product, you're the product," goes the saying (attribution uncertain). Right now, it feels like we're waiting to find out our product status.

Meanwhile, Apple has spent years now promoting its products by claiming they provide better privacy than the alternatives. It is currently helping destroy the revenue base of Meta (owner of Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp) by allowing users to opt to block third-party trackers on its devices. At The Drum, Chris Sutclifee cites estimates that 62% of Apple users have done so; at Forbes Daniel Newman reported in February that Meta projected that the move would cost the company $10 billion in lost ad sales this year. The financial results it's announced since have been accordingly grim.

Part of the point of this is that Apple's promise appeared to be that the money its customers pay for hardware and services also buys them privacy. This week, Tom Germain reported at Gizmodo that Apple's own apps continue to harvest data about users' every move even when those users have - they thought - turned data collection off.

"Even if you're paying for the product, you're the product," Cory Doctorow wrote on discovering this. Double-dipping is familiar in other contexts. But here Apple has broken the pay-with-data bargain that made the web. It may live to regret this; collecting data to which it has exclusive access while shutting down competitors has attracted the attention of German antitrust regulators.

If that's where the commercial world is going, the appeal of something like Mastodon, where we are *not* the product, and where accounts can be moved to other interoperable servers at any time, is obvious. But, as I've written before about professional media, the money to pay for services and servers has to come from *somewhere*. If we're not going to pay with data, then...how?

Illustrations: Twitter flies upside down.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter or


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