How Tower Bridge Changed My Relationship With Twitter | June 13, 2011

Like many geeks in the UK, the Tower Bridge Twitter account was one of the first Twitter Mashups I’d seen. It was also the point where I realised that Twitter was more than just a simple communication tool; it was a powerful and scriptable platform.

Talking publicly available data, local developer Tom Armitage created a Twitter Bot which automatically Tweeted whenever the bridge opened and a ship passed through. This was a rare occurrence in the city and something most people have never seen, so the account gave Londoners a new way of experiencing an iconic part of the city. As such over 4,000 people, from local developers to London Cabbies followed the account which had remained active for several years.

One of the things I loved about the account was that it spoke in the first person. By allowing an inanimate object to communicate with the real world, Tom had created an early example of a spime; an object which can be tracked through space and time. This little experiment inspired numerous other developers to experiment with the platform and became part of the Twitter story in the UK. As such I was saddened to find out that Twitter unilaterally decided to shut the account down. A sentiment shared by much of the London developer community.

It would seem that a company called Tower Bridge Exhibitions decided that they wanted the account for themselves so asked Twitter to hand it over. Rather than trying to contact Tom to discuss the claim, it appears that Twitter simply sent him a notification that the account was being pulled. This worries me for a number of reasons.

First and foremost it brings into stark relief the fact that we don’t own our online identities or the content we produce. We have few if any rights, and the companies behind these services can remove our accounts at will. I guess I’ve always felt a certain ownership over the services I use. After all, we’re all part of the reason for their success. So the fact that they can delete accounts at will is rather unsettling. It basically sends the message that you’d better play nicely or we’ll expunge you from history.

Secondly, it seems that social networks have an automatic presumption of guilt. So rather than attempting to contact users to discuss claims, the default response to an alleged copyright infringement is to send out a notification that action is being taken and put the onus on the user to respond quickly and defend themselves. This results in a disturbingly Kafkeresque approach to dispute resolution. A much better way would be to send multiple emails, set a deadline for response, put accounts on hold and then only hand over accounts once every attempt at resolution has been followed.

I’m a huge fan of Twitter and have always had very positive feelings about the company, their staff and the service they provide. However this latest incident has eroded some of my faith in their brand and they have taken one step closer to Facebook and Google in my eyes.

Posted at June 13, 2011 9:22 AM

Comments

Paddy said on June 13, 2011 9:52 AM

A small detail, but it’s a (very questionable) trademark dispute, and not copyright infringement.

Remy Sharp said on June 13, 2011 9:52 AM

This has happened before and it will keep happening, simply because you don’t own your username. We’re relying on our twitter handles like they’re domains, which we have full responsibility for. These handles aren’t like regular usernames in an application, but that said, who ever heard of hotmail.com taking an email address off of a user (I use hotmail as it’s been around long enough to be dodgy)?

As you, I’ve also been a big fan of using Twitter, but I’m worried that it’ll eventually become a site I don’t want to be involved with - because of username piltching and data hiding. Which only leads me to want to somehow host all that content myself. I’d love to see a decentralised notification system (tweets being notifications) whereby we can control and manage all our content ourselves.

This also links to the problem that although you’re the author of all your tweets, Twitter prevents you from taking your data some place else - you can get the last 3,200 tweets - but you’ll be missing the first 7,000 odd. That’s like a hosted blog service just eating your blog posts. Not good!

Sam said on June 13, 2011 9:52 AM

Tower Bridge? Or um, sorry, I doubt myself sometimes…

Sam said on June 13, 2011 9:55 AM

And, as if by magic, it changed. I have many a “McCulloch moment”…

Jon Norris said on June 13, 2011 9:56 AM

Interesting - a company I do work for has been trying to get hold of their “real” Twitter username for a while now, on the basis that the person using it has only tweeted about three times and the account has been dormant for over a year. Twitter have been massively reticent to do anything about it - perhaps if they brought in the lawyers it’d speed things along?

There definitely needs to be a better process for things like this.

Dominic Jones said on June 13, 2011 10:04 AM

It’s not that they took the username - this much seems to be within their (twitter’s) remit. It’s not that they sent out a notification… it’s the fact that the notification sent already presumed guilt. I recognise that twitter are a pretty small company considering the size of the monster they have to manage, but something just feels wrong about the way this account was just shut down - As Tom mentions, Twitter had the opportunity to take a less contentious route, to engage in a conversation, but they chose to simply suspend the account. Had they done the latter, Tom would not have responded (the email being buried in a gMail account) and that would have been an end to it. I think we’re all annoyed by the presumption rather than the actual action.

Stephen Lang said on June 13, 2011 10:15 AM

This is reminiscent of the BBC’s treatment of the websites for which they lacked funding for. Online content providers need to be aware of the sentimental value of their user’s data, even if it is automatically generated. Twitter are introducing ‘hurt’ or ‘pain’ here when they have brought so much openness and freedom to others in the past. I think this public perception of data volatility will be taken more seriously as the ‘big guys’ suffer from decentralised competition such as Diaspora.

Maybe it would be beneficial to users if it was made a legal requirement to be able to retrieve a personal backup archive for any online service of significant proportion or popularity? At least then in this case and the case mentioned by @rem, the user involved would be able to re-publish elsewhere.

Jenni said on June 13, 2011 10:32 AM

Whilst it’s a shame that it happened, I think people are far too demanding of a free service, particularly when they haven’t bothered to read the terms and conditions. Twitter would do well to introduce paid accounts for people who expect more.

Jaimie said on June 13, 2011 10:53 AM

It seems there is more to the story now, check Tom’s website.

“Buried, somewhere in the inbox I use for the Tower Bridge account, was an email from Twitter Support. So, let’s get the apology out of the way: Twitter did contact me. It was buried in an old GMail account. And, sure enough, on the first of June, here we go:”

Sue said on June 13, 2011 10:53 AM

Hopefully Tom will continue his original Tower Bridge bot in another account with a similar name.

John Gibbard said on June 13, 2011 10:54 AM

It would seem that there has been some acknowledgement of the heavy-handed land-grab and the suggestion of an olive branch: http://twitter.com/#!/TowerBridge/status/80216498504859648

I’m not sure I have that much sympathy for the idea that one could realistically own an identity of something like Tower Bridge and not expect it to be contested but I do concede that the manner in which it was revoked/transferred was a little heavy-handed from both Twitter and (initially) Tower Bridge.

Olivier T. said on June 13, 2011 10:54 AM

What bothers me most here is the “trademark” claim.

IANAL, but if I am not mistaken, trademark laws are here to protect a business in a specific industry, and in a specific territory – jurisdiction. Which means that I am not allowed to go sell drinks in the USA under the name “Coca-Cola”.

Whether using “cocacola” as a URL, or monicker on a social network is actually a trademark infringement. Past legal cases such as this one did conclude there was a trademark infringement, but on the basis that the whole trademark (including visual identity) was being used. IOW - this was a case of (corporate) identity theft.

Of course twitter (in their TOS, now well hidden in #newtwitter) has a clause saying that “We also retain the right to create limits on use and storage at our sole discretion at any time without prior notice to you.” So they can do as they please. But the claim that they do so because of trademark infringement (without any legal decision backing the claim) is sketchy at best.

Chris said on June 13, 2011 12:36 PM

My company have a Tower Bridge web cam, which has proved to be surprisingly popular - so much so that I suggested adding some kind of feed to notify users of impending openings. I wonder if LBE will be after us next?

Tom Carden said on June 13, 2011 4:23 PM

If we can look past the idealistic issues around trademarks, copyrights, name squatting and broken URLs, the thing that most sadden’s me is that Tom’s content is still offline. It wasn’t “just” a bot, it was also a puppet that he spent time and energy crafting a voice for. The thousands of followers were testament to the fact that it was a really nice idea, very well executed.

The fact that Twitter just wiped the account out, and didn’t provide Tom with a link to recover his content (either for his personal use, or restored on Twitter under a different username), is just sad.

As others have said, he wasn’t passing himself off as anything Official, yet he’s given the same treatment as a dormant squatter or spambot and booted off the system completely. After three years it would be completely obvious to anyone reviewing the account that it wasn’t disposable. That’s the sad part.

Tom Carden said on June 13, 2011 4:32 PM

Further to my comment about all the content being gone, I saw a comment on another blog post suggesting that the content was likely all still there at @towerbridge_ - this seems to be correct: https://twitter.com/towerbridge_

It’s not clear to me if this is part of Twitter’s usual process for handling things or if this has been restored as part of the fuss kicked up this weekend. Anyway, it’s there.

Andy Budd said on June 13, 2011 5:14 PM

Hey Tom,

It appears that @towerbridge_ is still operational as it just tweeted 8 minutes ago. Like you say I’m not sure if this is a normal part of their process of damage limitation. But it’s good that it’s still around.

Dave Nattriss said on June 13, 2011 6:28 PM

What’s sadly normal, is for people to assume the worst (such as Tom assuming Twitter had not contacted him, or everyone else alleging that the account had been completely wiped) before checking the facts.

Lucy said on June 13, 2011 9:26 PM

The real scandal is that a popular, interesting and fun Twitter account was replaced with something so very boring. Tower Bridge wanted the account name, but didn’t really have anything useful to do with the account. It was marketing for marketing’s sake, no doubt pushed by a PR consultant who’s understanding of social media goes about as deep as “Twitter is kewl, must have Twitter.”

Dave Nattriss said on June 14, 2011 1:09 AM

Not sure why you’re making stuff up Lucy. The account still exists at @Twrbrdg_itself, with all the same followers.

As for how the legitimate account is being used, that has no relevance, and of course it is still ongoing. Whoever runs it got the gig, not Tom or his bot.

Dave Nattriss said on June 14, 2011 1:23 AM

Andy, which accounts are you referring to when you say they can be deleted at will? Tom’s account still exists.

Also, why shouldn’t we get in trouble if we don’t play nicely on someone else’s platform?

RE: presumption of guilt, surely if a party who prove themselves to represent a brand (as Twitter do make you do, by use of an e-mail address at a legitimate domain name) claim that another party does not represent it, that’s a fair reason to re-assign the username.

Dave Nattriss said on June 14, 2011 1:24 AM

Andy, which accounts are you referring to when you say they can be deleted at will? Tom’s account still exists.

Also, why shouldn’t we get in trouble if we don’t play nicely on someone else’s platform?

RE: presumption of guilt, surely if a party who prove themselves to represent a brand (as Twitter do make you do, by use of an e-mail address at a legitimate domain name) claim that another party does not represent it, that’s a fair reason to re-assign the username.

Ariock said on June 14, 2011 2:44 AM

Good point, Dave Nattriss, aka @natts. By the way, do you own the trademark to NATTS? Because if you don’t, and someone makes a website where they claim ownership of the trademark to the name “NATTS,” you could be out a twitter handle. I don’t see any claim to trademark ownership on your website either. I hope you’re not too attached to that handle.

Here’s why: I’ve been using my name online since 1997. There is a guy in Canada who also uses the name. He plastered all over his website (.com NSFW) that he owned the trademark on the name. He complained to twitter. They notified me and used as proof of his ownership the guy’s website. So they changed my name. done. no further discussion.

Dave Nattriss said on June 14, 2011 10:42 AM

My company is registered in the UK as ‘natts.com Limited’, so I could easily have my screen name re-assigned to ‘natts_com’ or ‘nattscom’ or whatever (as periods are not allowed in Twitter screen names), if someone else had a legitimate claim to ‘natts’. I’ve also owned the natts.com domain name for almost 15 years, and while I don’t have a registered trademark, I do have a history of owning the name (natts.com), which I would hope that Twitter would be respectful of, just like they’ve been respectful of the people that run Tower Bridge in this case (which doesn’t appear to have an actual trademark registered).

Geoff Jackson said on June 15, 2011 10:26 AM

What an ongoing debate!

A much more reasonable solution is for the official company to realise and understand the value, popularity and development that has gone into the bot, and simply recognise/credit the creator and/or ask them to continue running the bot/account whilst they own the rights to the account. Like when CNN acquired @cnnbrk from James Cox but still kept him on board to run the account.

Trademark infringement is a growing issue on the web especially with the rapidly developing social space.

Dave Nattriss said on June 16, 2011 1:44 AM

But why is it so important for the bot to run @TowerBridge instead of say @TowerBridge_bot (better than @TwrBrdg_itself that Tom has actually gone for)?

dave blackburn said on June 17, 2011 1:25 PM

Did we not have the same problem when the web was launched - and companies were snapping up website domains for the Urls?

Dave Nattriss said on June 18, 2011 4:53 PM

At least with domain names, there are usually independent organisations who can release them from squatters and let those with good reason have them instead. With Twitter, it’s one private company making the rules and the calls.

Fipe said on June 19, 2011 2:25 AM

The problem with sites & tools that rely on user generated content is that the users feel that they have more of a right to the content than they actually have. While this is understandable, the fact is that your information is not yours but theirs to do with as they almost please.
Lots of online companies that have user generated content trade on the feeling of open sourceness of their site, Up to a point, you have more of a say than you would on other platforms however this is only up to a point.
I share the disappointment of others with regards this

@ dave nattriss
“With Twitter, it’s one private company making the rules and the calls.”

Therein lies the problem. People forget this and are surprised when the big online companies show that this is what they are. They may feel opensourcey due to their user generated nature but they are fundamentally private companies who are in it for the money (maybe in the beginning they were in it for love but that was then and this is now).

Andi Freeman said on June 19, 2011 7:06 PM

Mashups are performative, they are not cultural artifacts in the same way that a domain or brand can be. They have a specificity to the API, moment in time and dataset they operate on. The usual ‘us and them’ analysis of this situation fails to have weight because of this overlooked fact. Software which historically began as an scientific and commercial engineering task has now taken on cultural and social relevance in the same way that other forms of engineering and science have done in the past. Tom should be proud to be the ‘artist’ in this work, but should expect no more than the thousands of fashion designers, architects and artists who have seen their ideas turned into cash by someone else every year. In this case Twitter were indeed crass but I don’t understand why people think that they are the ‘good guys’ and express disappointment. Like any real company they will do what they feel is to their own advantage at any one moment in time and engaging in warm fuzzy moments with developers is clearly not on the agenda right now (although if they survive long enough I would predict that, like Apple with whom I have had a long term ‘affair’ as a developer, the love will come in waves…you just learn to enjoy it while its there :-)

Like any good artist Tom should keep creating unique, compelling works and develop his own ‘brand’ and generate rewards from that. Go Tom!