privacy on twitter vs. privacy on facebook

In a post describing some teens’ use of Twitter and Facebook (Twitter is for friends; Facebook is everybody; some teens are using private Twitter accounts for communication with friends because Twitter is too public), danah boyd poses the following question:

My guess is that if Twitter does take off among teens and Dylan’s friends feel pressured to let peers and parents and everyone else follow them, the same problem will arise and Twitter will become public in the same sense as Facebook. This of course raises a critical question: will teens continue to be passionate about systems that become “public” (to all that matter) simply because there’s social pressure to connect to “everyone”?

I believe that Twitter may actually be much more resistant to both this pressure and subsequent switch to less “public” platforms than Facebook for two reasons: account norms and Twitter clients.

Account Norms, Privacy, and Collapsed Contexts
On Facebook, everyone pretty much gets one account.1 This leaves me with a choice of collapsed contexts (same profile for everyone) or only friending people from a particular context or set of context. There are many fine-grained privacy controls, but this all adds up to a more-is-less experience, at least for me. There are enough many controls that I don’t particularly remember what I’ve set to be visible to whom. When I comment on something in friend’s profile (or am tagged in one of their photos), I don’t know who can see that.

With Twitter, people can have multiple accounts, and for private accounts, they know exactly who can see their posts: only people who I give permission. This is not to say Twitter is not without some privacy pitfalls – e.g. plenty of private tweets get retweeted or replies on others’ public accounts – but I have a much clearer idea of who can see a status update or reply on Twitter than I do of who can see similar content on Facebook at the time of posting. I suspect that many users of private Twitter accounts do so just to avoid the “what if so-and-so sees this?” question. So it seems reasonable that people could have different accounts for their work, family, friends, etc personas, though there’s a point at which it probably would be too many.

Twitter Clients
Having multiple accounts wouldn’t work well without an appropriate interface, and here Twitter benefits hugely from its API and the many, many Twitter clients available. Using more than one Facebook account, especially simultaneously, is an ordeal – multiple web browsers, no aggregation. With the right client, reading from and posting to multiple Twitter accounts is a breeze.

So while there may eventually be an exit from a more public Twitter, I think there is more room to move within the same service, diversifying accounts, than there might be on Facebook. This will only, work, though if people are willing to set boundaries and accept boundaries – and probably not if mom and dad insist on following the Twitter account their kids use to communicate with friends from school, or if colleagues regularly feel insulted when a coworker-acquaintance declines their request to follow an account they use to communicate with close friends.

1I believe this used to be part of the terms of service, but I don’t see it anymore and can’t be sure that it was ever there.