Curing Twitter Jitters

By Lynn Lieu

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Posted November 18, 2010 in News

Maybe you don’t want the whole world to read your latest tweet?

With Facebook getting a black eye over revelations that the hyper-popular social-networking site’s applications were providing access to people’s names and friends to advertisers and Internet tracking companies, the issue of online privacy and security has moved to the forefront of our virtual minds.

But now, students and professors at UC Riverside have come up with a way to bring a bit of peace of mind when it comes to Twitter posts.

When MySpace created a portal for users to share their lives and connect with peers, it became a hit among many high school students. It also became a tool for predators to prey on the vulnerable. As the social network grew, it spurned other social network sites looking to profit from the movement. As those social networks grew so did the awareness of the dangers that come with sharing too much information online. Privacy settings were created and constantly updated as each site added new communication tools.

Twitter, the social networking and microblogging site formed in 2006, allows users to connect with one-line blog posts. Users can “follow” other users by request similar to how MySpace and Facebook set up “friends” or “fan” lists. Some post funny jokes. Some re-post or re-tweet other users’ posts. Some post their current location. The website is estimated to receive about 180 million unique users’ visits per month with about 105,779,710 users registered to the site, according to statistics released at the 2010 Chirp conference. Like other social networks, Twitter users are concerned about privacy.

“We conducted a survey of more than 100 undergraduate students in computer science at UC Riverside, and 50 percent of those who had used Twitter said that, due to privacy concerns, they had at least once rejected a request to follow them,” says Harsha V. Madhyastha, an assistant professor for UCR’s computer science and engineering departments—and an avid Twitter user. “While I haven’t had a problem yet, I constantly worry who will see what I post on Twitter.”

Madhyastha, along with computer science and engineering professor Srikanth Krishnamurthy assisted two Ph.D. students (Indrajeet Singh and Michael Butkiewicz) in developing Twitsper, a new application that addresses these sorts of concerns.

“Twitsper lets users of Twitter send private messages to a subset of their friends,” Madhyastha says. Twitsper was released Monday.

“Currently, anyone with a mobile phone that runs the Android operating system can use Twitsper,” he adds. “We plan to soon make Twitsper available for other platforms such as the iPhone.”

Twitter’s current default is to set users’ Twitter pages to “public,” which allows all posts to be viewed by everyone accessing the website. If a user changes his or her privacy setting, their Twitter page is still viewable to any user who follows them.

“Twitsper provides a convenient way to share my activities with friends and family . . . I use a public Twitter account so that members of my family, who only use Twitter to see my updates, can see my tweets without having to sign up for an account,” says Butkiewicz, a second-year Ph.D. computer science student and Twitsper co-creator. “The down side to this is that anything I post is seen by everyone. Sometimes I want to tweet something only to my close friends, and not my family members or others. Rather than having to have one public and one private account and making my friends follow both, Twitsper allows me to remain public, while still being able to privately tweet to a subset of friends when I want to.”

The idea behind Twitsper arose when Butkiewicz and Singh took a course on wireless networking.

“The original motivation to enable private messages stemmed from the website pleaserobme.com, which goes through tweets to determine when users are not at home,” says Madhyastha. “We realized that posting on Twitter that you are not at home could still be useful, but only if such messages were sent to a select group of friends, rather than to all of your followers—or worse—to the whole world.”

Currently about 100 people are using Twitsper and Madhyastha expects that number to grow significantly.


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