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BirdsWhen is an acquisition not an acquisition? When Twitter’s involved, apparently.

The microblogging company announced today that it had “acquired the team at Fluther, Inc.” Fluther makes a question-and-answer site, a popular category of Web startup as of late. (See Hunch or Quora for examples of better-funded competitors.)

When I asked Twitter spokeswoman Carolyn Penner what kind of deal it had actually struck, she characterized the event as a “talent acquisition.” I pointed out that there’s no such thing, really, as a talent acquisition: Either a company acquires or merges another company and takes on its employment obligations, or it hires employees as individuals. I also pointed out that under the U.S. Constitution, acquiring people was technically illegal.

The conversation pretty much devolved from there, and apologies were later issued by Twitter direct message. (Sorry, Carolyn, I can get pretty pedantic, I know.)

Apologies aside, Penner didn’t shed any further light on the deal, but an insider deeply familiar with the workings of the Twitterverse told me that Twitter hired five people who worked at Fluther but didn’t actually acquire the company or any of its assets. That squares with Twitter’s blog post, which noted it wouldn’t be taking on the website, but wouldn’t be shutting it down, either.

So what does this mean? In the absence of clear statements from Twitter, one can only speculate. A strong possibility is that Twitter’s concerned about looking cheap — hiring people away from a startup usually costs less than buying it. Twitter may also want to avoid being seen as the force responsible for shutting down a site with a voluble community of users, as Facebook was with the recent “talent acquisitions” of and Hot Potato.

It’s an irony that these services, devoted to creating cultures of openness, transparency, and sharing, can’t come out and state the obvious: a lot of startups are failing to gain traction, and they’re happy to snap up engineers, but they’re not going to dilute their shareholders or spend their cash actually acquiring smaller companies. Dressing up this event as an “acquisition” makes it sound fancy, and may salve the feelings of the new hires.

There’s a lot of awkward terms for these admittedly awkward exits from a startup: “manquisitions,” “acq-hires,” “talent acquisitions.” We at VentureBeat stand for brutal honesty, however, and prefer to call them what they are: “engineers who need jobs.”

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