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Last week Twitter changed how their block function worked, which to us on the outside looked like kind of an arbitrary switch, then quickly recanted after plenty of people rightly pointed out this was a bad move.

The dustup reminded me of a feature request I’ve had in mind for Twitter (and other social media companies) for a while: hire an ombudsman.

Typically, we associate the ombudsman with government orgs, NGO’s, or foundations. Their role is to keep the place they work accountable to the public. Newspapers will often have one (the New York Times calls theirs the public editor) with a regular column dedicated not to covering the news but to how they cover the news1.

What links these types of organizations is a sense of purpose and accountability to the communities they serve. Increasingly, social media companies are taking on this role, though not necessarily with the same sense of obligation. The mission of social media is much more difficult to peg down than, say, a local newspaper, but there’s no denying the overlap. And while social media corporations pay lip service to the importance of their work, they’ve yet to institute the levels of accountability we’ve come to expect from what they are displacing.

Here’s how I imagine this would work: hire someone for a two year gig. Their salary goes into locked escrow, they are not eligible for stock options, etc. They are given a reasonable level of access to anyone in the company, from the board to the interns, and the authority to report on how things operate, without revealing proprietary information or upcoming plans. The right person would be a working journalist, a skeptic, someone who believes in afflicting the comfortable, but also technically adept enough to understand what’s going on. My pal Mat Honan would be a good start, or anyone on this list. They’d write a regular column (sure, call it a blog) but it might only get updated once a week or so.

This is different from the sort of “radical transparency” that cropped up a few years ago of executives blogging about their mission to make the world a more open and connected whatever. I’m talking about someone tasked with keeping the company honest, someone accountable to the public, not to shareholders. Someone who’s beyond just neutral but a doubter, someone who will hold executives’ feet to the fire and call bullshit when necessary.

Twitter is an interesting candidate because of their similarity and proximity to the news business and their desire to at least appear like they have a soul2. Twitter has already replaced the daily newspaper, evening broadcast, weekly magazine, for so many people. We can argue about whether this is a good thing until Cronkite rises from the grave but it’s a fact. It’s how millions of people start or end their days, get breaking news, and follow the stories they care about.

Twitter seems to realize there’s a responsibility that accompanies being this pipeline but has, thus far, remained pretty opaque about how it works with the news. Now that they are public, and are continuing to style themselves as a media company, some transparency in to how they operate would not only be welcome but is of vital importance.

Somewhat tellingly, the Times created their public editor position in response to the Jayson Blair scandal↩︎

Let’s be clear: Twitter’s soul is the same as every other corporation that’s ever existed. If it has a heart, the stuff that flows through it is still money. ↩︎