In the interest of helping you figure out who to follow, Twitter is following you.
Twitter announced Thursday that it will use information it collects about users' browsing habits across all sites with Twitter "share" buttons to recommend accounts to follow.
By tracking individuals during their visits to websites in what the social media site calls the "Twitter ecosystem" (which includes any page with an embedded Twitter widget), Twitter can monitor what stories or topics each user visits most, and use that data to suggest accounts that match their interests. For example, someone who frequently reads HuffPostParents would likely see a recommendation for HuffPostParents columnist Lisa Belkin on Twitter.com.
"We receive visit information when sites have integrated Twitter buttons or widgets, similar to what many other web companies -- including LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube -- do when they’re integrated into websites," Twitter wrote in a blog post. "By recognizing which accounts are frequently followed by people who visit popular sites, we can recommend those accounts to others who have visited those sites within the last 10 days."
Twitter deletes or aggregates the data it collects after 10 days, and users have the option to opt out of having the their browsing tracked (for more on how to do that, see here or here). In the same blog post announcing its "experiment" with tailored suggestions, Twitter also declared its support for a Do Not Track option and said it would not collect data on users who had enabled the setting on their browsers.
Though other web giants, such as Facebook, also track individuals as they peruse the web, Twitter's disclosure was seen as a surprising -- and unwelcome -- admission by some.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
"Basically, every time you visit a site that has a follow button, a 'tweet this' button, or a hovercard, Twitter is recording your behavior. It is transparently watching your movements and storing them somewhere for later use," wrote blogger Dustin Curtis, who said he was "shocked" by Twitter's admission.
Jules Polonetsky, co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum, said Twitter's plan to collect browsing information "wasn't known" prior to Twitter's blog post. He noted that by using personal details to customize the Twitter experience, Twitter was actually using this data in more "robust" ways than Facebook.
Polonetsky also remarked that Twitter's decision to jointly announce its tracking "experiment" and support for Do Not Track was a "masterful" PR move that called attention away from its plan to collect more user data.
"Announcing the robust use of data along with a privacy measure has become a tried and true strategy for companies looking to demonstrate that they're both using data in new ways and that users have control over it," said Polonetsky. "They [Twitter] were quite savvy in linking the two announcements in a way that generally gave them a postiive reaction."
While noting that Twitter's move to collect user data would "garner scrutiny," the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit advocating for digital rights, praised the company for supporting a Do Not Track option.
"Twitter is showing an inventive way that websites other than behavioral advertisers can respect Do Not Track," wrote the foundation's activism director Rainey Reitman. "We’re heartened to see this forward-thinking approach and hope other sites with embedded widgets will follow suit." Twitter wrote that its personalized suggestions aim to "make it easier and faster for everyone to get started on Twitter," a step that goes toward addressing the "blank slate problem" we previously wrote about here.