Noah J Nelson on Friday, Aug. 12th
It’s Friday, and our head writer is supremely caffeinated. Time for a rant about social media.
It’s a day of the week, so it must be time to mourn the imminent demise of Twitter. I know, I know, we’ve bene doing this for at least half of the lifespan of the social media platform, but this year feels different. 2016, after all, is the year that everything good and decent has collapsed into a singularity from which no hope can escape.
In so many ways it is also the year that saw the triumph of the worst of Twitter culture seize control of the mainstream. American political headlines read like a celebrity’s mentions gone toxic. Meanwhile, the actual headlines, and the Facebook trending topics that people actually bother to read, focus on all the celebrity mentions that have gone toxic.
Those of us who have been on Twitter since the early years have watched the company stumble through one lame product launch after another, all while bleeding out users. This week saw a fairly brutal expose by Buzzfeed News that relied on ex-Twitter staff to pretty much lay waste to the company’s failed efforts to curb harassment. The core assessment: that the platform is basically optimized for trolling.
It’s almost impossible to argue with that.
What gave Twitter its initial appeal was that it acted as a kind of public commons for the Internet. At first everyone was on equal footing—I was tempted to say “pretty much,” but it was actually equal—and the communities that emerged were fairly good at being held together by your basic social contract. Meaning that if you were an asshole you were ostracized.
The global reach of Twitter meant that if you had something in common with another user there was a chance you might wind up talking with them thanks to the good old “six degrees of separation” rule. (For the uninitiated: that’s the notion that everyone on Earth is just six degrees of separation from anyone else. Social media has often made that feel spectacularly true.)
As more people came onboard things started to get twisted. First came the tools that made it possible to track conversations: hashtags were invented by the users before being made an official part of the platform. They were great, making it possible to find even more people who held similar interests and concerns. Until they weren’t. When trolls started using them to target specific people and communities. To wage campaigns that sent wave after wave of people to go yell and threaten other users. (That’s putting it mildly.)
Twitter’s reaction was to hold down the position that all speech was protected speech on the platform. That Twitter is the equivalent of a telecom company that had no responsibility to manage its user’s behaviors. Twitter failed here and failed big time. The failure was one of cognition and vision.
Because Twitter is *right* to stand on the side of free speech. But free speech doesn’t mean that the intended target has to listen. This is a tricky thing to parse because there are options to mute and block, but for Twitter to be a truly great platform a user’s Twitter identity has to be an extension of the self. More than a phone number or an email account, a Twitter handle is like a shadow: an ephemeral mark made on the world that has an effect on the environment around it. To mute and block is to remove yourself from the light, without which a shadow cannot be cast.
Trolls understand this implicitly, even as Twitter’s product team does not. Their egos are boosted by the damage they do to the avatars of others as if we were all on The Grid of Tron. Slamming again and again into a user’s persona until they box themselves into an echo chamber or flee the platform. They bait those with large followings into arguments in order to raise their own profiles amongst troll-kind.
This behavior is an infection within the system, one that degrades the health of the network. Valuable nodes with the network (celebrities and other power users) leave and the fabric of the whole is weakened.
All of it based on the fallacy that protecting speech means forcing people to listen to everything. That an untrusted user on the network (hello, eggs) has the same value to the health of the system as a long-standing node. Maybe at first, but we’re past that point. Long past. It’s not a terribly egalitarian thing to say, but a society can’t be maintained without some mode of vetting, and like it or not Twitter is a society.
They’re a hundred different ways that Twitter could have fixed this, and right now I just don’t feel like doing any more free product development for them. What I do feel like is turning to those of you still on the platform who aren’t trolls and barflies looking for a dust-up.
Let’s enjoy what’s left of Twitter while we still can.
Let’s be decent to each other.
Let’s ask clarifying questions when something sets us off instead jumping to name calling.
Let’s not hammer into someone’s mentions just because we can.
Let’s introduce ourselves when we follow someone, so we’re not just strangers.
Let’s remember that culture is a conversation, one that gets better when we look to keep it going rather than “winning” a point.
And for the love of God: let’s not police other people’s mentions like they were our own backyards. It’s one thing if someone holds up a mention for everyone else to see, or hashtags in in the first place, it’s quite another to jump in and try and hijack a conversation to make it all about you.
(I’m not talking about interjecting when you follow two people and they start talking, I’m talking about doing this crap to strangers. It’s creepy even when the comments are cute.)
Will we always get it right? No. We’ll screw up and be insensitve by accident. The trolls will troll. Those who live to argue will continue to do that. And worst of all there’s almost no way Twitter the company can be counted on to make it any better even though they are the only ones who possible can.
It’s up to us to bring back the practice of giving others the benefit of the doubt. Of being “nice,” for lack of a better word. To make Twitter’s golden year(s) better than the dumpster fire 2016 has been.