Riesman didn’t panic — but she didn’t want to impose her “spicy” pics on people. “It was, ‘Oh god, am I shoving my naked body in front of a load of people?’” she said. “I’ve curated my Circles to people I thought wouldn’t mind, but the general public does not need to see me in my birthday suit.”
Melissa Ingle, who was a senior data scientist at Twitter until CEO Elon Musk initiated a round of layoffs in November 2022, called all this “a major breach of confidentiality.” Ingle added, “Your Circle is your trusted group of friends, and to see those posts outside that group suggests the algorithm is lacking basic functionality.”
For Riesman, the idea that functionality failed isn’t exactly a surprise. “I long ago gave up on the notion that anything I post online will permanently remain secret,” she said. “I’ve prepared for moments like this in my head. And it didn’t faze me.” Riesman said her tweet about the incident “was more of a public service announcement for people who really do rely on Twitter Circles being a semiprivate space, or at least a controlled public space.” Riesman said she has many friends who are trans but not out who post about their gender in Circles and could be outed through the error.
How the Circles problem happened and how it gets fixed are pertinent questions. An email to Twitter’s press department email asking why the breach of privacy happened received the now-traditional auto-response of a poop emoji.
Unfortunately, the Circles screwup is part of the way of life online, according to Ellen Walker, who is studying internet storytelling and narrative-curated digital culture at the Royal College of Art in London. “As quickly as enclosed digital spaces can be curated, they can be taken away in a flash, by virtue of either technological enhancements, wider audience participation or, in the case of the Twitter Circles innovation, a severe misstep on the part of moderating forces,” she said.
The impact is significant. “It would be one thing if this feature were just being taken away and Twitter told its users, but to happen unexpectedly without warning feels like a betrayal,” Ingle said. “Unfortunately, under Elon Musk this type of thing is more and more likely to happen because of the severe staffing cuts and lack of expertise he has ushered in.” (Musk has fired or let go significantly more than half the company’s total number of employees since taking over in October 2022.)
Moussa also blames Musk’s leadership. “It seems like the constant tinkering with whatever they want the For You algorithm to be has just fucked this up beyond belief,” he said. “This kind of portends greater security issues across the board. If you maintain a locked account, what guarantee do you have at all that it will remain locked? It’s a breach. The trust has gone. No one can ever again actually be confident that this shit is not going to completely blow up in their faces.”
As for Riesman, she seemed more sanguine. “I think there’s a part of us that just expects this now,” she said. “We all who are still trapped here [on Twitter] know that the place is falling apart.”