When I first talk with clients about standing up a Twitter account, invariably the question of “can we make it private?” comes up. Maybe they’re considering Twitter as a crisis communications tool limited to employees only, or perhaps they’re skittish about dealing with criticism from a public forum. After explaining to them that making a business-oriented Twitter account private is neither an effective nor trustworthy way of using the channel, I also elaborate on why privacy on Twitter is an illusion.

A private, or “protected”, Twitter account means your tweets can only be seen by followers you approve. Your tweets won’t show up in search results (either in Twitter or third-party tools), and they can’t be retweeted (quoted) by anyone who follows you. It doesn’t however, stop your followers from copying and pasting your tweets into their own posts, but the same could be said for any type of social networking account with varying levels of privacy.

So why are Twitter’s privacy settings less substantial? Let’s use Facebook as a comparison.

The walls are thinner. Protected tweets apply only to your timeline. If you have a conversation with someone whose account is public, outside observers can see their half of the discussion. Depending on the context, it could be quite easy to fill in the blanks. In addition, protected accounts still allow others to see who you’re following and who’s following you; outsiders could study your connections to learn more about you. Conversations within Facebook are somewhat more closed: as long as your privacy settings are configured correctly, people you’re not friends with can’t see when your friends comment on your wall posts. Also, Facebook’s settings allow you to block the list of your friends from those not in your network, so they can’t see who you’re connected to.

The audience is larger. Facebook has an upper bound of 5000 friends per standard account. If you’ve allowed someone to view your protected tweets, and they either have a dialog with you or post your content via copy-and-paste, those messages could potentially reach an audience of millions very quickly.

The privacy settings are more austere. You can either protect your tweets or make them public. That’s it. No friends-only, friends-of-friends, or any custom settings in between.

I think dispelling the illusion of privacy in protected Twitter accounts is helpful, not just from a business perspective, but also for folks who want to keep their tweets behind sealed walls. The best practice is to always assume you’re speaking in a public space, so be mindful of your privacy on Twitter by understanding what can be shared about you.