twitterThere’s really no doubt now that Twitter is a powerful tool for the social web. Major news oganizations totally missed out on the start of the rioting and upheaval in Iran.

Twitter did not.

It’s proven incredibly hard for the Iranian government to censor information leaving Iran simply because it’s so damned hard to shut down all the avenues of access to Twitter. So while the news outlets of the world sat on their thumbs, Twitter broadcast real time information to the world. Now there’s a drinking game where you watch CNN and take a drink every time they use the word Twitter. I think CNN just found a new source for news.

But what gets me is that, like any social medium, Twitter was invaded by advertisers. That’s fine. As much as I hate advertising, I understand you really can’t go anywhere without seeing any. But I do take harsh exception to the good people of Twitter whoring themselves out to provide free advertising to some kind of company. Orbitz, Squarespace, and on and on. No one business is guilty, there’s a lot of them.

streetwalkerThe method is simple. The business puts out a tweet with a hashtag and then says that everyone who retweets that tweet with the same hashtag will be entered into a drawing for a free widget. Orbtiz was giving away tickets. Squarespace was giving away iPhones. The list goes on. Just for giggles, I retweeted the Squarespace one with the statement that I wouldn’t know what to do with an iPhone if I won it. I sure as hell wouldn’t activate it since I can’t abide going back to AT&T.

Today, I’ve seen a slew of them, and it’s not even noon yet in Phoenix. Thing is, I’m not paid to advertise and neither are any of these people. They’re entering themselves into a contest, supposedly. Now, let me ask you something: You ever see the contest rules and legalese when McDonald’s or Best Buy holds one? It’s typically a page of 5 point font readable only by scanning electron microscope. They do that because they are required by law to make sure you’re informed of your rights under the contest rules.

See any of that with these Twitter ads and contests? I sure as hell don’t. What this means is they don’t have to award anyone a thing and they still get the advertising. Or the company could give that free widget to @SoAndSo who is actually an employee of the company but no one knows that. They can do whatever they want and get tonnes of free advertising courtesy of the masses who think they’re going to win a prize.

I’m not saying that any of these business are actually doing this, but think now… What’s to stop them from doing it?

Oh and hey, hashtags can be completely exploited for commercial gain. In my opinion, that’s even worse because I figure that’s false advertising. Crap like that wouldn’t fly on Craigslist for god’s sake, so I don’t think we should accept it on Twitter either.

Addendum: With a big shout out to the lovely and intelligent Ms. Lisa Rabey (@pnkrcklibrarian), it turns out that Squarespace was not handing out iPhones. They were handing out certificates to get an iPhone from AT&T. Folks, a prize is something you either win or earn. But if you have to work to get the prize after it’s awarded, then it’s not a prize.

If this contest were being held in meatspace, the company would have been obligated to let you know that in writing.

Edit: Added the link to Squarespace’s blog.