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.

Gerald Wiener
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From the Kindertransport to Dolly the Sheep: a New Statesman subscriber's story

Gerald Wiener's life has now been turned into a biography. 

In 1997, Gerald Wiener, an animal geneticist, gathered with a group of friends in Edinburgh to celebrate the cloning of Dolly the sheep by one of his former colleagues. He was a respected scientist, who had contributed to the developments in research which led to this ground-breaking development – and a New Statesman reader.

It could have been very different. Gerald was born Horst, on 25 April 1926, to a German Jewish family. Raised in Berlin by his mother, Luise, he grew up under the shadow of the Nazi regime. He was forced out of his school, and left increasingly alone as friends and family fled to the United States and Britain. After Kristallnacht, when Nazis looted and vandalised Jewish-owned businesses, his mother was desperate for her son to escape. She managed to get him included in the last-ditch organised rescue of German Jewish children, which became known as the Kindertransport. At twelve, Wiener arrived in the UK, alone.

For many years, Wiener did not talk much about his past in Germany. Instead, he embraced a new life as a British schoolboy, and later travelled the world as a scientist. But when he met his second wife, the teacher and writer Margaret Dunlop, she began noting down some of his stories. Eventually she encouraged him to share so many details it has become a book: Goodbye Berlin: the biography of Gerald Wiener.

“I was moved by some of the stories, like his mother putting him on a train in Berlin,” Dunlop tells me when I call the couple at their home in Inverness. “I thought - what a terrible thing.”

“I rejected Germany totally for a long, long time,” Wiener, now 91, says. His mother, with whom he was reunited after she also managed to escape to Britain, threw herself into a wartime career as a nurse. “I had one friend from my school days in Berlin, and he was more like a sort of brother to me, but they also left Germany way behind.”

It was during this period of his life that Wiener first picked up a New Statesman. He spent the war years in Oxford, mentored by the Spooner cousins Rosemary and Ruth, related to William Spooner, who gave his name to the speech error.

Then, in the 1960s, his work took him to Germany, where he met fellow researchers. “They all detested the Hitler years,” he recalls. “I started feeling they are no different to me. I no longer felt bitter about Germany.” 

Still, the Nazis' atrocities had left Wiener almost completely without family. He lost his grandfather, aunt and uncle in the Holocaust. His paternal family fled to the United States. By the time Wiener found them again when taking up a fellowship to study in the US in 1956, his father, who survived the concentration camps, had died of a heart attack.

The next decades were spent patching his family together, and also reclaiming a connection to Germany. Wiener’s half brothers, who were born in Shanghai continue to visit. His American nephew, who works in the music industry, has a German girlfriend and lives in Berlin.

Wiener, too, went back to Berlin. In the early 1990s, the city invited former refugees to visit the city, all expenses paid. With some reservations, Wiener and Dunlop took up the offer. “It was quite exciting to go and see places that had been in my childhood,” he says. He also found the old people's home his grandfather had sought refuge in, before being taken by the Nazis.

Meanwhile, his career was taking him around the world, from India to North Korea. His belief in academic collaboration helped to build the momentum for the Roslin Institute, whose scientists eventually cloned the sheep known as Dolly. 

Wiener, who votes Liberal Democrat, wanted to remain in the EU, and he feels “very angry” that 48 per cent of voters have been ignored.

He adds: “I would be surprised if there was a single university or college who was in favour of Brexit.”

As for another of the great challenges of the present, the refugee crisis, Wiener feels a deep empathy for those living in wartorn regions. “Obviously I feel very, very sympathetic to refugees from more or less wherever,” he says. He sees the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who acted decisively on this matter, as “a bit of a beacon”. At the same time, he believes that in order to fully integrate, refugees must make learning English a priority. “When I go down the street, and I hear people who still don’t speak English, that is the one thing that upsets me,” he says.

If Wiener, a successful scientist, is an example of how Britain can benefit by continuing to offer sanctuary to the world’s desperate, there is, however, a dark undertone to his integration. As a teenager, he knew there was no way back to the Berlin of his childhood. “There was no young generation,” he says of that time. “There was no future.”

Goodbye Berlin is published by Birlinn Books.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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