Home Do you know yourself like Twitter knows you?

Do you know yourself like Twitter knows you?

Twitter's demographic profile data looks more like it came from a fortune teller than an algorithm. Syndication

Let’s get right to it, shall we? Hard truth.

No matter what you do now, Twitter owns all the data you’ve given them so far.

Even when you deactivate your account, your previous likes, tweets, clicks, purchases - all have ALREADY been sold to someone else.

And all that data they gathered, at least for me, wasn’t even close to my true preferences and likes. No wonder I see weird things on my feed.

This isn’t Twitter specific. Just about any website you log into (not just social media sites) can do this after you “Agree to Terms and Conditions” on sign up.

Open up your Twitter app and follow along with your own account.

They really don’t want you to find this

These menus can be hard to navigate (I wonder why?), so let’s get you in the right place.

Here’s a handy reference, with explanations of where to go as well. You are reading that right - 5 steps to get there. We’re looking for the “Topics” section from “Content You See”.

Twitter Data Settings Location Diagram

From a Web Browser

It’s the same as above, except for the first step.

Browser View of Privacy and Safety Menu Item

Now we should all be in the same spot!

There’s so many things to discuss here, but let’s focus on one section in particular, “Content you see”.

Content you see

Obviously, if you’re moving away from Twitter, it doesn’t really matter what shows here. But it directly ties in to the data they are selling to third parties, so let’s take a look.

From the “Content you see” sub-menu, choose “Topics”.

This page is confusing. Along the top, you’ll see “Followed”, “Suggested”, and “Not Interested” tabs.

Topics View showing Followed, Suggested and Not Interested Tabs - Followed is selected

On the “Followed” tab, instead of seeing “Followed” topics, I see a mash of suggested topics from Twitter. If you’ve set some followed topics yourself, they would appear mixed in with the suggested ones with a blue checkmark beside them.

When I first found this configuration page, topics like “Nebraska Cornhuskers”, “LeBron James”, “Maryland”? All appeared as suggested topics of interest. I have absolutely no interest in any of these (sorry, sportsball). I removed them, and it told me it wouldn’t suggest those anymore.

But what I noticed is that as I removed those oddities, new “suggestions” appeared that were equally wrong. It was never ending.

Twitter has no apparent option to turn off suggested topics completely from your timeline.

If the suggested topics were better tuned to my interests - maybe I wouldn’t mind so much. But this was just weird.

I think the terminology on this page should be:

  • Topics you WANT to follow, chosen by you (high value for advertisers)
  • Topic you DO NOT WANT to follow, chosen by you (high value for advertisers)
  • Topics Twitter and their advertisers want you to follow (“Forced Interest” is what I call it)

By making your own choices here, you MIGHT help train your feed a bit, but mostly all you are doing is making your demographic data even more valuable to Twitter.

Let’s dig into another area.

Your Twitter Data > Interests and ads data

At the bottom of the Topics configuration page, there is a little link that will take you to the “Your Twitter Data” view. Click it, wait for the reload, and choose “Interests and ads data”

Interests from Twitter

The “Interests from Twitter” section starts to feel a bit more like “me”, but still some really weird interests. ATP? I’ve never played Animal Crossing. I’m interested in the general topic of “Actors”?

Interests from Twitter view, showing a list of checkboxes you can select and unselect

So completely separate from the timeline suggestions for topics, but that data is used to populate THIS section - which is then sold to advertisers.

Once again, contribute as a non paid Twitter employee by checking and unchecking options from this page and providing a more fine tuned demographic data file to advertisers. Because, regardless of what you choose here, you’re still going to see ads and topics that Twitter wants you to see because they are getting paid to do so.

Last stop.

Tailored Audiences

Go back up a level and choose Tailored Audiences. You won’t see much here, other than you have very little control over what’s happening to your data.

I’m part of 1,058 audiences from 300 advertisers.

View of Tailored Audiences section of the Twitter Settings

Cool cool. Ok let me opt out of being in those lists.

I can’t you say? Nope.

Once Twitter has sold your soul to a third party advertiser, it’s gone.

At least you can “Request advertiser list” and then I guess you can contact each individually to remove yourself.

Taking a step back here, this is honestly how many online companies work. Other organizations will ask for “lists” based on a specific topic - like, all your users that are interested in beanie babies.

The more specific the request, the higher the price they can sell it for, usually. And, of course, the amount of data they can provide raises the price even further. And Twitter can provide a ton, thanks to us!

A look at the Advertiser List

So I did go ahead and request my advertiser list - it only took about 30 minutes to be emailed to me. The email came back with a subject line of “Your advertiser list is ready” with nothing in the body - just the attached PDF. They are done with us. 😆

Image of Email with the subject line "Your advertiser list is ready, no message, and an attached PDF"

I was pleased to see that both @ScreamQueens and @kraftmacncheese have found me a quality candidate for their advertising! 👍

It’s broken into three sections.

Tailored Audiences

Tailored audiences are often built from email lists or browsing behaviors. They help advertisers reach prospective customers or people who have already expressed interest in their business.

This is probably the cheapest way to advertise on Twitter, since there are so many companies doing so. The organization may have come to Twitter with a third party list already in hand that they upload to Twitter. Or they may just choose your “Topics of Interest” to try and focus down to a specific group.

Similar Audiences

Twitter creates these audiences in order to increase advertisers’ reach. You may be included in these audiences based on similarities between your account and the accounts included in tailored audiences.

This is Twitter filling in gaps in their Tailored audiences lists when a company wants to reach a larger audience.

Similar Tailored Audiences

This isn’t called out as a separate section, but it seems to be a sub-set of Similar Audiences.

Tailored audiences are often built from browsing behaviors. They help advertisers reach prospective customers or people who have already expressed interest in their business.

The companies in this list are for things that may cost larger amounts of money - Disney Cruises, Alaska Cruises, Motorized Bikes. They know they aren’t going to get TONS of interest, but want to really hone in on those that have clicked on their content or similar content. Most likely the highest price for this data.

What can I do?

Here in the United States, if we’re willing to use apps like Twitter, not much. We don’t have many laws to protect us from this type of behavior by online companies.

California and a few other states are waking up, but having individual states all with their own set of laws is going to be a nightmare. There needs to be a standard law for the entire country, similar to the EU’s GDPR regulations.

Consider moving your interactions and content to sites that better protect your privacy, or at least give you more control over it.

There are apps out there which explicitly do NOT collect data from you. The fediverse has many apps that are similar in feature set to Facebook (Frendica), Twitter (Mastodon) and Instagram (Pixelfed) without having your data sold or even collected beyond what is necessary to run the apps.

Wrapping Up

Know that ultimately, the responsibility to protect your data is yours, not a government or app. Each of us has our own level of concern about sharing our data.

Your best bet is to weigh the value of the application and determine if it’s worth the amount of data they collect about you.


This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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