If you watch Twitter for long enough, you’re bound to score some information you were never meant to see. For a few minutes this morning, that was John ‘PC’ Hodgman‘s mobile phone number.
“I haven’t heard from you and am wary of waking you up,” he tweeted — in public, by accident. “Want to say 10am? I’ll call after 9, or you can: 917-XXX-XXXX.” (Our redaction.) He quickly deleted the message, following up: “Clearly that was designed to be a DM.”
The problem is one that’s tricked Twitter users old and new: Accidentally sending a tweet as a public message instead of as a private, direct message. For most people, this is no big deal. But for a celebrity of Hodgman’s stature, or a politician, something like this could get annoying (or worse) fast.
What’s the cause? It’s probably different for everyone, but the root of the problem is that Twitter is such a simple service that it’s easy to screw up.
For instance, because Hodgman was using Tweetie to send the tweet — likely on an iPhone — he probably accidentally went to the “send a public tweet” screen by accident, instead of choosing someone to send a direct message to.
Sometimes, other users just get the syntax wrong: Instead of typing d username Private message, they add a typo, like ‘dr’ or ‘ds’. That message is then posted publicly.
I’ve goofed this up myself, responding to a direct message via SMS. I forgot that — unlike regular text message replies — the ones I send to Twitter’s 40404 shortcode get posted to my feed — unless I specifically add the d username command. So a bunch of people inadvertently got my mobile phone number one night in May, too. But I suspect that’s a less attractive score than Hodgman’s.
What can Twitter do about this? Not much.
It has made some user interface tweaks on the Twitter Web page to make it clear when you’re sending a direct message versus a public toot. But because so many Twitter users are using apps like Tweetie or TweetDeck, or SMS, Twitter doesn’t have any UI control there. Perhaps app makers like Tweetie can make the direct message screen even more clashing — a red background, or something — so you notice more when it’s missing. But that’s not exactly elegant.
In reality, not a huge problem for Twitter. When you goof up, it’s frustrating and can be embarrassing. And it’s not a mistake you’ll likely make twice. But not worth ditching the service because of it.
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