Warning: bad puns ahead.
When I think of the moment that Twitter came into being, I tend to imagine a sunny March afternoon in a Californian office. Optimistic, tanned people with untarnished ideals and notepads bursting with new ideas are brainstorming words like, “instant”, “create”, “share”, and “no barriers” onto a quirky whiteboard. In my (arguably over-glamourised) version of events, as the first tweets are sent from 8:50pm on the 21st of March 2006 onwards, I’m pretty certain that Twitter’s future was being envisioned as the ultimate triumph of liberality over injustice, open-mindedness over intolerance, and freedom of speech over censorship.
Whatever the goal, however, a turbulent decade later, the grim realities of being one of the largest hosts of online interaction have become impossible to ignore. Twitter may boast a glittering cast of world-renowned figures from President Obama and Oprah Winfrey to Harry Styles and JK Rowling, but at the same time, it has become painfully apparent that only a very few drops of malice can poison the entire well of good intentions.
Surviving the mean tweets of the internet
The poison in question has been surprisingly unpredictable, and that is part of what makes it so difficult to predict and deal with. Often triggered by global events, tragedies, and breaking news, one day it might be extremists inciting hatred and violence, the next day it could be careless individuals sharing the names of victims who should have been protected by anonymity, and the day after, people are encouraging and organising further rioting. Perhaps most often, however, the poison has poured forth in torrents from an army of trolls, collectively capable of wreaking widespread havoc.
The casualties of trolling are as numerous as they are high-profile. Iggy Azalea, Lena Dunham, Zayn Malik, Stephen Fry, Adele… There are now countless stories of celebrities taking temporary or even permanent time-outs after receiving abuse and death-threats through the platform. Such departures hit particularly hard as they bring the problem of online abuse to the very forefront of media interest, shining an uncomfortably bright light both on the darker side of human nature, and on the platform’s own efforts at keeping users safe.
Fighting a running battle in the tweets
In the early years, Twitter’s response to trolling was arguably fairly slow. Again, when I think of this first influx of abuse, I imagine that same sunny Californian office, and wonder if, like many of us, those bright, idealistic people in it were simply bewildered that anyone would to take the opportunities offered by the platform and decide to use them for harm. Whatever was happening behind the scenes, however, at last, Twitter’s then-CEO Dick Costolo acknowledged that the trolling problem was an epidemic, and it finally became apparent that under the quiet surface, an increasingly frenetic hive of activity was being dedicated to improving safety and trust. Each of the results of these efforts would make an interesting case study in its own right, but since I’ve written about some of them before, I’ll only summarise here.
Over recent years, Twitter has introduced options to mute, block, share block-lists, report offenders whether as a target or a bystander, and get a copy of those reports to take to the police. They have modified policies to account for new forms of abuse such as revenge porn and indirect threats. And they are now actively hunting for multi-account abusers, and making suspicious users verify accounts through phones. All this comes with an intense focus on a quick response-time.
These are all excellent steps forward, but it is interesting to note that they are mainly extrinsic, technological solutions. By contrast, those carrying out the abuse are intrinsically, psychologically motivated. In different words, this is like trying to silence a continually barking dog with a very tight muzzle. This will work, and quickly too, but as soon as the dog learns how to get the muzzle off, the barking will resume. A better solution – far more easily typed than implemented – is to tackle the motivation for barking in the first place. Resolve this, and the problem vanishes whether the dog wears a muzzle or not. Unfortunately, dealing with the factors that drive abusive online behaviour is extremely time-consuming, resource-intensive, and difficult to measure for success. For these reasons, it’s easy to see why technological answers usually come first.
The better angels of our natures
Perhaps the most impressive development in these latest stages of Twitter’s evolution is that it has not shied away from this last and greatest challenge of attempting to develop a prosocial community, rather than focussing primarily on creating technological inhibitions to antisocial behaviour. In the UK, Twitter is now working with groups such as Women’s Aid, the U.K. Safer Internet Centre, and the Crown Prosecution Service, tackling everything from understanding how restraining orders and social media interact to providing training webinars for Crown Prosecutors. The continued drive to make the platform safer even crops up as one of the five priorities for 2016 in Twitter’s latest letter to its shareholders.
Has Twitter managed to realise its ideal, then, of creating a truly democratic space, in which people can instantly create and share ideas and information without barriers? It’s an impossibly high ideal, and the answer has to be no. Not yet, at least. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but that curve is gentle, and getting there takes a long time. For now, at least, the trolls are still lurking, and the fear of becoming the next target still inhibits users from expressing themselves with complete freedom.
That said, compared to its idealistic beginnings, Twitter has grown from a little business with big ideas into a big business that is infinitely more mature, engaged, and socially responsible. Without losing its optimism and enthusiasm, the Twitter of 2016 is starting to look like it is willing to face the serious, global challenges that lurk beyond the sunny Californian office door, and I can only hope that this choice of direction is still trending in another decade.