Small Changes to Twitter and Gmail Lead to Big Reactions Online

Small Changes to Twitter and Gmail Lead to Big Reactions Online

Online sites sometimes experience growing pains as they try to figure out Internet etiquette.  At the same time, every free site walks a fine line of trying to keep users happy while also appealing to those that bring the income -- namely advertisers or marketers.  After all, sites that are free for users such as Facebook, Twitter, or Google aren't free to the people providing those services.  They need a way to make money, and that money usually comes from amassing marketing information or selling advertising space.

Users may grumble about it, but without trading access to your information or enduring advertising, Facebook, Twitter, and Google (really, any free Internet-based site) would need to move to a subscription model or similar set-up.  Servers cost money, storing information costs money, and staff cost money.

Two changes were made in Twitter and Gmail this week that rocked the online world as the sites either tried to quell problems before they surfaced or find balance between keeping their users in mind while still making things sweet for marketers.  In the case of Twitter, the changes were reversed quickly.  With Gmail, the changes look like they're going to stick.  Here's what you need to know about both situations before you plug in.


Image: via Flickr


Forbes reported on Twitter's move to mute "blocked" users rather than cutting off access to a blocked feed.  Since blocked users could technically still see some information in a public feed (though not a private account) in the first place, Twitter created a new set up where the blocker wouldn't see the blockee.  The blockee could continue to write anything they wished about the blocker, tagging them in the process, but it wouldn't show up on the blocker's screen.

Forbes writes,

Blocking someone on Twitter now actually means you’re just muting them. It’s the digital equivalent of plugging your ears; they can shout but you won’t hear them.

CNN reported on the immediate backlash.  The new policy was created because Twitter was worried about "the retaliation against blocking users by blocked users (and sometimes their friends) that often occurs" since under the old (and now current) system, blockees could tell that they had been blocked.  Users responded that the upgraded system (which is now gone) actually hurt them more because blockees could still follow them and retweet their updates to their followers, fomenting their followers without the blocker knowing.

Twitter wrote in a blog post that "we never want to introduce features at the cost of users feeling less safe" hence why they've switched back to the system preferred by users.

The case of Twitter is definitely a win on the side of the user, though it highlights a feature of the system that people may not have considered in the past.  There is no real sense of "blocking" or privacy on Twitter.  Everything a person writes on the site (if they have a public account) is part of the public feed regardless of how much power we believe we have with the blocking feature.


Gmail also made an enormous change on Thursday according to the Official Gmail Blog.  Users will no longer be asked if they want to download images.  Instead, the images will download automatically.  Gmail writes,

We did this to protect you from unknown senders who might try to use images to compromise the security of your computer or mobile device.

But thanks to new improvements in how Gmail handles images, you’ll soon see all images displayed in your messages automatically across desktop, iOS and Android. Instead of serving images directly from their original external host servers, Gmail will now serve all images through Google’s own secure proxy servers.

But tech sites are reporting on what Gmail isn't saying in their blog post; namely, marketers will now know whether or not you opened an email.  Wired states,

Buried in the fine print, a different picture emerges. The new setup also means that people and companies who send you email will be able to find out when you’ve opened and read their messages, because loading these images requires a call back to the sender’s server.

In other words, while it's being spun as a benefit to users, the true beneficiaries are marketers who will have a more accurate open rate for their mailings.  Before this change, people who opened an email but didn't click to download the images could read the email without the marketer knowing.  Now, as Google states on their support page, "In some cases, senders may be able to know whether an individual has opened a message with unique image links."

Luckily, they also give you directions on the support page on how to turn off their feature if you don't want images to download automatically.

PCWorld reports that marketers are happy with the change. 

Google’s move to start displaying email images by default in Gmail is going to help marketers, in part, to more accurately track how many people open their emails.

Google has responded that the change won't be as helpful as everyone suggests, though sites such as Wired have cautioned that "Previously, Gmail took a stronger stance on privacy... So it’s sad to see Google taking a step backward — and being less than forthcoming about the implications."

Either way, unless the option is removed in the future, the power -- in this case -- is still in the user's hands if they fuss with the default settings, though the power moves to marketers if they don't.

Do you think sites are changing their user policies too frequently?  Or are the changes usually a good thing?

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her novel about blogging is Life from Scratch.

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