Twitter. What is it, really? A blog? A chat room? An email system? The ability to support so many types of conversation streams without having to invest a deep personal relationship with the service itself is the prime trait that Twitter has harnessed. And that could lead some of us in some very hot water.
The fluidity of a service like Twitter creates a grey area which can be left to interpretation, by pundits, social media experts, journalists and individual users. Lawyers and judges, however, may soon get in on this debate. The legal issues that can arise from a mere 140-character tweet are innumerable, and they can also have a lasting effect on the concept and future use of Twitter as a communication tool.
A defamation lawsuit has been brought against Kim Kardashian, from the Dr. Sanford Siegal, the doctor behind the Cookie Diet. After the TV reality show star tweeted that the Cookie Diet was falsely using her name to promote the new health craze, saying that she would never participate in such a diet. Kardashian followed up with a tweet saying that she is on the QuickTrim diet.
Turns out, Kardashian was reportedly on QuickTrim’s payroll at the time, earning $10k per related tweet as an endorser. Dr. Siegal tweeted a link to an article reporting that Kardashian was using the Cookie Diet, but removed the link after a cease and desist order was put in place.
Not only are we dealing with the legal issues around defaming one’s name, but we are dealing with the legalities of endorsement blogging. These are two issues that have already been debated for years. With celebrities suing various publications for defamation, and bloggers having seen the inside of court rooms to debate the issue of disclosure, we already have a few precedents to consider when looking towards the future of Twitter.
Yet the inability to really pin down a single purpose for Twitter makes it a slippery legal topic when determining the validity of a case such as the one Siegal brought against Kardashian. The matter of Twitter accounts, especially those run by celebrities, being hacked is a concern. The existence of digital versus printed copy is another part of this yarn ball, as is the matter of blogger accountability for something like referencing a link.
Non celebrities have Twitter-related issues as well. In the very recent past, the first Twitter murder was reported. After engaging in a tweeted battle of the words with a childhood friend, James Darcy turned up dead. The tweets, in both of these cases, could be used in court as evidence.
I have no doubt that this will all get untangled in the legal machine. But I do wonder at the impact these law suits will have on a service like Twitter. The wild west of the web can only last for so long, and Twitter is the last of the major social networks to resist large scale regulation. However, that may soon change.
Looking at MySpace and Facebook, these behemoth networks have faced their share of legal woes. Being drawn into the middle of personal legal battles is an unavoidable truth of running a social network with millions of people. A single statement posted on a social networking profile can ruin another person financially and emotionally, and that can lead to a level of wrath that the only solution is to take matters to court.
Twitter will certainly have to layer in some regulatory methods, restricting various types of users from taking advantage of Twitter’s forum for inappropriate purposes. When, how and for what reasons are the undetermined factors in Twitter’s story.