Twitter's new advertising tool will turn it into a dystopian nightmare

...just like it did to Facebook.

It begins harmlessly enough. You're chatting to a friend, a neighbour perhaps, over the garden fence. The conversation turns to her upcoming wedding. What would she like for a present?

Suddenly a giant box of toasters falls from the sky, landing with a crunch between you. You can no longer see your friend. You start to scramble over the debris, the crushed cat, to find her - is she ok? - but then something small and hard hits you right in the eye. You pick it up: it's a diamond ring. Then another hits you in the back of the head. You're under attack!

You start to run, leaping over fences and through conservatories, but you know you're being chased. Hunted. A guy pops out from behind a tree with a megawatt smile: "Looking to buy some trainers?"

"Get away!" you scream, desperately weaving round him.

"Get away from it all!" a voice from nowhere booms in your ear.

You jump. Where the hell is it coming from? Is it IN YOUR HEAD? You hear it again, ingratiating now, soft, a warm current in the frosty air. 

"A Thompson holiday is only a click away."

And so it begins. Twitter is getting a new API, or “application-programming interface”, a technology which will make it easier for advertisers to reach the right customers. In other words Twitter is getting what Facebook got back in 2010. Advertisers will be able to access information you release in the course of social interaction, and use it to sell you things.

This makes sense for Twitter, for now. It has a great product, (after all, all decisions have hitherto be made with customer experience in mind) and now it wants to make some proper money.

Here's the FT on the financial benefits of the move:

A similar technology launched by Facebook in 2010 helped that social network reach more than $3bn in revenues the following year, with analysts estimating the system currently generates roughly 60 per cent of the company’s revenues.

eMarketer estimates that with the new venture Twitter's revenue will grow 90 per cent this year to $545m, and that  it will earn over than $800m next year in global ad revenue.

But what of the product itself? Twitter spokespeople insist the user experience will be uninterrupted "in the short term" - users may not see that many more ads - but that's not the whole point. The really damaging aspect of the new advertising development, I'd argue, is that it'll allow ad companies to "target" their marketing.

"Because we have a robust listening solution and engagement solution, we can listen to what people are saying [on Twitter about a brand] and engage with them and take any of their tweets and promote them," s Salesforce Marketing Cloud's  Michael Lazerow told ADweek.

But social media sites are a great deal about trust - you are downloading a large amount of subtle personal information (you can't help it, you're socialising) - and it's an uneasy feeling that cynical sharks are circling, trying to make money out of it.

You get too much of this on twitter anyway. Tabloid journalists haunt the edges, looking for someone famous to make a a false step which they can use out of context. Now imagine what would happen if everyone's witterings were that lucrative.

But we don't really have to imagine - we have Facebook. Since its 2010 marketing drive the site has been haemorraging users (it lost more than $50bn after last year's stockmarket crash), and those still on it squirrel away that valuable personal information, using it mostly to arrange social events via private messaging.

So what today's Twitter news really means is that another great social networking site has peaked and is on the way down. Plus ça change.

Looks so innocent. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital