Twitter CEO: We Suck (Update)

Twitter is suffering from growing pains.  Sure, it seemed like a ridiculous idea when it first launched, but as it turned out, it wasn’t. Not by a long shot.  Why remains something of a mystery to me, but then, who cares what I think. Old guys are certainly not the barometer of new technology.

But then, we’re not entirely out of the loop either.  That Twitter had complaints coming in about the tone and content of some users has long been a known issue.  Per that bastion of deep thought, The Verge, it appears that Twitter’s CEO now admits the error of his ways and will take up arms to end it.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo is taking personal responsibility for his platform’s chronic problems with harassment and abuse, telling employees that he is embarrassed for the company’s failures and would soon be taking stronger action to eliminate trolls. He said problems with trolls are driving away the company’s users. “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years,” Costolo wrote in an internal memo obtained by The Verge. “It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.”

Trolls are easy to spot. They’re the people who annoy us. Then again, we’re the people who annoy them.  But Costolo’s concern is for his “core users,” and he’s kind enough to tell us who they are:

Costolo’s comments came in response to a question on an internal forum about a recent story by Lindy West, a frequent target of harassment on Twitter. Among other things, West’s tormentors created a Twitter account for her then recently deceased father and made cruel comments about her on the service; West recently shared her story on This American Life and The Guardian.

He goes on to explain what he plans to do about it.

We’re going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them.

Everybody on the leadership team knows this is vital.

Examples offered at The Verge make it all very clear:

Just last week, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian documented the harassment she received on Twitter from January 20th to the 26th. You’ll have to scroll for awhile before you hit the end of tweets containing gendered insults, victim blaming, incitement to suicide, sexual violence, and rape and death threats. Sarkessian was a top target for Gamergate predators because of her criticism of the way women are portrayed in video games, and her post shows that the vile intimidation campaign against her continues unabated.

There are no First Amendment implications to Twitter’s choice. It’s a private company, and fully entitled to limit its platform to any speech of its choosing. If it’s picked sides in Gamergate, so be it. That’s its prerogative.

And in anticipation of those inclined to argue that the internet has become the “town square” of the future, so vital as the site of public discussion that it should be subject to the same free speech protections as governmental action, buy up all the shares of Twitter and make it into whatever you want it to be.

But until you do, it’s owned by other people, run by other people, and private companies in America aren’t required to run themselves in accordance with your desired way of using them.  You may liken them to the town square, but they’re private property. Get off their lawn.

And this goes deeper than kicking off those who say vile things to Anita Sarkeesian.  As Venture Beat notes, Twitter is also on board with the anti-revenge porn crowd.

Twitter said last month that it’s fed up with the negative tones and bad behavior on its site, and this month it’s taking another step to change things.

At 6PM Eastern Time Wednesday it introduced new language on its Twitter Rules page to prohibit the posting of stolen nude images and revenge porn.

This new verbiage appears in the “Privacy” section of its Rules page: “You may not post intimate photos or videos that were taken or distributed without the subject’s consent,” the rules now read.

Sounds great. Just one problem.  How will Twitter know what’s what?  Will there be roving bands of prune-faced school marms dispensing their own brand of vengeance against twits that offend their politics and sensibilities?  Silly as this seems, that’s likely to be the case. A button to press to alert Twitter of a mean person, an image that they don’t like, a twit that hurt someone’s feelings, and the twitter gods will disappear that user.

Who gets to press that button?  Twitter’s “core users.”  We already know from Costolo who they are.

So Twitter has picked its side and, for those of us who are not allies, there is a good chance that we won’t be long for the Twitters.  I would imagine that Church Ladies will be busy deleting twitterers with delight, filled with the awesome power of recreating the twitter world in their own image.

What does this mean for those of us disinclined to toe the Twitter party line?  It means the time is ripe for a new twitter, a new town square, because the old one will offer little more than an echo chamber of hand-wringing and whining.

Remember, liberals hate conservatives, feminists hate everyone, MRAs are vicious jerks, SWJs are self-righteous prigs, and then there’s race and religion.

All we need to do to achieve beautiful harmony is cleanse Twitter of all the people we hate. And to those of you who remain on the twitters, have fun!

Update:  At Techdirt, Tim Cushing gleans some more detail from Kash Hill’s post at Fusion:

Kashmir Hill, writing for Fusion, gathered more specifics from a Twitter employee:

I asked Twitter if there was a “Weiner exception.” How would this apply to a newsworthy intimate photo, such as the bulge-portrait then-Congressman Anthony Weiner accidentally tweeted of himself which went viral and eventually led to his resignation from office? The Twitter employee said there will be a “newsworthiness exception.” So if your bulge or boobs are a front page story in the newspaper, Twitter may not take them down.

The policy also requires something that other sites (like Reddit) policing for revenge porn don’t: the takedown request must be made by the person whose personal photos/information are being disseminated without authorization. This will hopefully deter some potential abuse.

Damn, that Cushing is a trusting sort of guy. Who knew?

Mary Anne Franks, the law prof currently engaged in crafting questionable revenge porn laws, says Twitter isn’t doing enough.

Franks, for one, thinks it’s problematic that bystanders can’t report the posting of explicit images of others. “Every minute private sexual material is available increases the number of people who can view it, download it, and forward it, so even if Twitter responds quickly to complaints, it may be too late to stop the material from going viral,” she said by email.

What Franks views as problematic is actually a practical safeguard. If you give removal power to everyone, it becomes a plaything for abusers.

But nobody is going to abuse this. Nope. Won’t happen.

Then again, combined with the anti-harassment prong (since these things all go together, even if we discuss them separately), there seems to be some huge cracks in the façade of fairness.  Oh, and while Twitter investigates a takedown request under their anti-revenge porn rule, the twitterer’s account will be suspended.  And if they lose, they can always appeal to twitter.

Again, it’s Twitter’s business, so it can handle it any damn way it pleases, but I am not nearly as sanguine about the impact of this as Tim.  As Costolo said, “We’re going to start kicking these people off right and left.”  But fairly?


22 thoughts on “Twitter CEO: We Suck (Update)

  1. John Barleycorn

    All we need to do to achieve beautiful harmony is to make Twitter fulfill its destiny.

    The gateway to soft porn!

  2. Voltaire

    This will be an interesting case study, depending how far Twitter goes in actually eliminating user accounts. Twitter already has a hard time generating profits; is this an example of the company choosing to pivot in a direction that focuses on core users and a modified business model? How altruistic is this decision really? And the supposedly “leaked” email does an awful lot to put Costolo in a positive light to a certain faction of people, unlike most leaked CEO emails I’ve read…

    In the end, for Twitter, trolls are still users, it will be interesting if Twitter can remain viable with a large decline in it’s user base, especially if the company takes a broader approach in the definition of trolls…

    Or, this could all end up being nothing more than a marketing gimmick. Meant to appease a certain vocal subgroup of the company’s users, but not actually devoting more than token resources to combatting the “problem”.

    1. SHG Post author

      Twitter will make its bed and lie in it. What that bed will be has yet to be seen, but if Costello makes good on his promise and start tossing users whenever anyone’s feelings get hurt, it will be a ghost town. And then, a new forum will emerge and be the new twitter.

      1. Voltaire

        It’s actually pretty amazing how large Twitter has become (user wise) without any viable competition or alternative for “micro-blogging” here in the US. Anecdotally, it seems most of these warp speed growing tech companies have always had at least one competitor pushing them along; Google had Yahoo, Facebook had Myspace, Uber has Lyft, etc. Hell, even Microsoft had Apple…

        1. SHG Post author

          Please don’t call it “micro-blogging.” It makes me very sad whenever someone describes Twitter as that.

          1. Voltaire

            Haha! Hey, At least I put it in quotes! It’s only from industry reports discussing Twitter and the Chinese equivalent Sina Weibo that I’ve ever seen or heard the term. Though I do think it accurately describes both companies services and distinguishes their particular market from other “social media” outlets…

            1. Voltaire

              “Micro-blogging” is a simple descriptive term that distinguishes the market it encompasses within the “social media” umbrella without having to refer to an individual company, despite what your personal delicate sensibilities use to describe what is and isn’t blogging… 🙂

              (This post is just a joke, of course.)

          2. Patrick Maupin

            > Please don’t call it “micro-blogging”.

            Yeah, that would imply that a “regular” blog post was up to 140 million characters, so I call it “centi-blogging.”

            1. David M.

              This is a jaw-droppingly nerdy joke. So bad I had to change to a neo soul playlist to get rid of the wackness.

  3. Keith Lynch

    That’s why I’ve never been active on any so-called social network, such as Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, or Reddit, never had a blog, and only infrequently post to other people’s blogs. Most of my posting is on Usenet, an unowned part of the Internet, which consists of tens of thousands of newsgroups on various subjects. Sure, there are trolls and spammers, and nobody can kick them off, but all Usenet newsreader software lets each user block — just for himself — all users he doesn’t want to read. (Sorry if this sounds like an ad, but I’ve noticed that lots of people who are fed up with Twitter, Facebook, etc., and looking for something just like Usenet never heard of it.)

  4. DW

    I can already see what’s going to happen. Trolls will just keep making new accounts under different addresses. The backlash against people who whine about harassment will get worse. Twitter will respond like World of Warcraft and League of Legends did, and require users to sign up with a verifiable identity. And then Twitter will die. I’m okay with that, but somehow I doubt the “core users” will be.

    I am completely out of sympathy for the Anita Sarkeesians and Lindsay Wests of the world. I’ve been on the internet 10 years, I am not any sort of web personally, and of I had a cookie for every time someone threatened to beat, rape, or kill me on the internet, I could open a Mrs. Field’s. If I counted threats against my mother, and ethnic/sexual slurs, I’d be goddamn Nabisco.
    Deal with it.

  5. Reed Hollander

    It’s not clear (at least to me) that The Verge’s examples of Twitter users being harassed can be considered the same “core users” to whom Costolo refers in his memo. Neither Costolo nor anyone at Twitter appears to have been interviewed for this story. It’s also not clear that only “core users” will be flagging people for bans. It could well turn into a Twitter-fied version of YouTube’s DMCA takedown notice battles, with various sides “banning” each others posts in a never-ending cycle.

    Having said that, it remains to be seen how much freedom of discussion (if Twitter exchanges can be called such) Twitter will allow to occur and where it will elect to draw the line between what it considers permissible speech and impermissible harassment/abuse. Like you, I’m not optimistic that they’ll err on the side of robust speech.

  6. Chris ar

    The problem with being more vigilant against “trolls” is that the definition of troll is relative. Some simply think trolling is telling you what you don’t want to hear. People in political cocoons tend to think that disagreement is harassment.

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