Has the time come for self-destructing tweets?

A new service for twitter lets you add a snapchat-like timer to tweets. Is this what we need to get people to take privacy seriously, asks Siraj Datoo?

Remember that mundane conversation you had with a friend on Twitter last week - something about a football transfer or your latest favourite gif? If you Google words from that conversation, it's fairly likely that you'll be able to find those tweets, even if you have since sent hundreds more. A Twitter conversation you had years ago can affect Google's auto-suggestion when you type in your name.

So Spirit, a new app that allows you to ensure that your tweet self-destructs by deleting after a specified amount of time, could be a welcome solution. Similar to how one can share specific tweets on Facebook (tagging them #fb after you've installed the Selective Twitter app), Spirit requires users to hashtag their tweets with how long they want them to last: #5d, #2w, #4m, and so on. It can delete tweets from only a minute after they are initially sent.

Founder Pierre Legrain explained to me that he had already seen a number of use cases emerge. Beyond the mere novelty of the app, which has seen users try and "trick" their friends by watching their tweets disappear mid-conversation (unexpectedly common), meteorologists have been showing some excitement about its potential use.

Legrain, a designer-cum-developer, explained:

"...when you are tweeting and updating people about a fast-updating situation, you want the freshest information in the network being passed around and you don't want to be contributing to misinformation... They then have explicit control."

Yet while this use case is valuable, this idea of having more explicit oversight of your information is what interests Legrain. He said that, since it launched last Wednesday, he has been fascinated by its uptake. "[People] want to put things into the public but have more control."

And in addition to this making sense, especially in light of the NSA leaks, it demonstrates how people are becoming more aware of the infinite memory of the internet. That's a good thing. Legrain wouldn't give specific details on the number of users already signed up but said that there were an average of two users signing up every minute.

The idea of a lasting digital footprint is one that is gaining increasing attention and rightly so. In America, New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner sparked a debate about social media use after he sent inappropriate messages through Twitter's direct messaging feature. US talk show hosts explained how male students have started to use phones to send sexual messages to girls they don't know because i) it's more uncomfortable getting rejected in person; and ii) young people believe that something sent over the internet is less "real" than saying something out loud.

The idea that text messages, Snapchats and other updates sent across the internet are less tangible than real-life conversations is worth talking about because of how widespread it is. British Youth Commissioner Paris Brown ended up leaving a "dream job" only one week after she started because of a media furore over (now deleted) tweets that could have been perceived as homophobic and offensive.

Updating a public Twitter account does not only send those updates to your followers but into the wider internet.. The same can be said for Facebook and Instagram, where a growing number of people are unwittingly sharing images. For example, do you have a cover photo? Its default setting is set to public and cannot be changed. That image can be seen by anyone who can find your profile.

And take Instagram. Anyone who quickly scans my account there could very easily figure out that I've been in New York since mid-July, have a soft spot for coffee, tea, Nutella, coconuts and Asian cuisine and that I have, at least once, played Draw Something. And that I'm awesome at it. And that's the profile of someone who's careful about what he shares online.

Despite this, such technology has a way of tricking our minds into sharing more than we're comfortable with the world knowing. A new retweet, favourite or "like" brings with it a positive sentiment and this, in turn, eases us into sharing more. Perhaps Spirit can force us to be more wary with our tweets. We'll never know now, I suppose. Literally.

Spirit

Siraj Datoo is a freelance journalist.

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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt