Twitter's busy week: Censorship rules and changing timelines

The social network is tweaking its service after a rash of harassing and gruesome images and in an effort to bring more relevant information to people.


It's been a week of change at Twitter, but all to answer the question: What type of new media company does it want to be?

Twitter has long taken a liberal stance on censorship. Its terms of service of spell out that the company will punish any users who impersonate others, publish private information, violate copyright and spam.

But one place it hasn't been so aggressive is targeted abuse.

Two things have helped change that. First was the death of Robin Williams on August 11. News spread on social media quickly and led to an outpouring of grief. But some users published abusive messages at such a rapid clip that Zelda, Robin's 25-year-old daughter, chose to stop using the service a day later.

On Tuesday, the company said it will remove photos of deceased individuals at the request of family members and offered a way for people to make their requests.

Twitter had an opportunity to test that policy later the same day. James Foley, an American photojournalist held captive since 2012, was beheaded in Iraq. A video recording of his murder was uploaded to Google's YouTube and subsequent images spread across Twitter.

The social network sprang into action. Dick Costolo, Twitter's chief executive, said the company was actively suspending accounts "related to this graphic imagery."

The moves show Twitter's maturing efforts to become not just a communications platform but a social media company. The service has long been a bastion of free speech and uncensored communication, becoming a critical component of democratic uprisings in Iran and many other countries.

But there's also a dark side: The users who write mean-spirited things toward others. When Costolo went on CNBC in July, viewers were encouraged to tweet questions for him with the hashtag #AskCostolo. The result: Nearly a third of questions posted were about safety, privacy, and abuse.

How successful Twitter's efforts will be is unclear, of course. But for now, Twitter's on the offensive.

The new information

Twitter's other big change is the tweets it's displaying to users. Until recently, a Twitter user's timeline was largely a chronological scroll of missives from other accounts they follow. Sure, Twitter threw in a advertisement here or there, but it was largely untouched.

Recently, however, Twitter has begun algorithmically adding information to the stream. In a statement on its website, Twitter said it identifies a message, an account to follow or other relevant information and adds it to users' timelines. "This means you will sometimes see Tweets from accounts you don't follow," it said. The company declined to say when this new effort went into effect, but users began noticing the change over the past week.

The change appears minor but marks another fundamental shift in the way the company works. Other social networks have sophisticated computer programs that identify messages, photos, videos, and ads that users are most likely to find interesting, and display them instead of an unfiltered mess of all their friends' posts. The effort makes sense: After all, bombard people with too much information they don't find helpful and they could just stop using the service.

Twitter's answer until now has been to encourage users to create lists and to use its advanced app, TweetDeck.

A changing Twitter

The moves, while for very different reasons, indicate that Twitter is changing its business to answer long-standing concerns. They also help to encourage people to use its service more often and for longer bursts of time.

The company has already discussed its increasing advertising efforts. The company also touted activity on its network during the World Cup soccer event as an example of its upward trajectory, and increasing usage among current customers.

Now, it's answering complaints that could help attract customers to its platform. Perhaps even Williams.