The Timbit Story

Once upon a time, I brought a box of Timbits to work to share with my research team. I plopped the box on my desk, and my colleagues and I occasionally reached over to dip our hands into the box and grab a treat. I picked out the chocolate Timbits and kruller Timbits. My teammates picked out the raspberry Timbits because they know it’s in their best interest to eat the donuts I don’t like. We chatted and worked and ate.

Suddenly, someone who sat way over in the far corner of the office and who had never talked to us before, happened to wander by our area on his way to the photocopier. He spied the Timbits and with one swoop of his arm, he reached over and grabbed as many as he could fit into his two hands.

We stared in surprise as he continued on his way without a word. “Do you know that guy?” I asked. But no one did. The Timbit thief had struck in broad daylight.

The end.


Deconstructing the Timbit Story

Ok, so that wasn’t a great story, and the fact that I shared Timbits makes it an unbelievable story. But let’s think a bit about it.

I know that the 200 people in my office share a common space. We share the windows, the meeting rooms, the kitchen. Though I may not talk to everyone, or know everyone’s name, we all work for the same company, towards the same goal. We are many small teams within one larger team. My research team is one small network within a much larger social network.

And clearly, the Timbits weren’t MY donuts since a bunch of us were shoving our hands in the box and taking whatever we wanted without asking permission to eat each individual donut. They were obviously communal donuts. But still, most people would recognize that the donuts were intended for the research team, not for the entire office to pillage.

This is how a lot of people feel about social media data. Yes, they know the internet is public, just as their office space is public. But within the office, you have friends who are allowed to touch the donuts on your desk. And, all the other people in the office can wander around but they aren’t allowed to touch the donuts on your desk. Similarly, when we’re on the internet, we’re sharing information with our friends and followers, not with random people waiting to pillage whatever valuable items they can find.

So please, the next time you embark on a social media project that uses publicly available social media data, consider the mighty Timbit. Before you quote status updates and tweets and messages, make sure you consider the fact that those messages weren’t intended for you. If you haven’t got permission to quote someone, be sure to anonymize and mask their messages. It’s basic common sense and respect. Respect for the Timbit.