A rumor was spreading around Twitter Thursday, along with a requisite hashtag (#SaveTwitter), that Twitter would be shutting down in 2017 over the issue of cyberbullying. As CNet reports, this rumor is unfounded, and Twitter is, fortunately or unfortunately, not going anywhere anytime soon. But the rumor itself may be telling, at least in that many pundits have foretold the death of the social media platform in the last couple of years, and there has been a recent uptick in outcries about how Twitter has become an unchecked, incessantly hostile venue for racism, abuse, and bullying of all kinds.
Based on stories about the company's stagnating growth, its anemic stock price, and items like this one from this week about the company subletting a quarter of their San Francisco office space, rumors about Twitter collapsing are nothing new. They've had a rough year. They face stiff competition for the attentions of the social media-savvy from the likes of Snapchat and Instagram. They even had to launch a new ad campaign to try to explain to the un-savvy what Twitter is, because for many Twitter is still just a confusing mess of incoherent abbreviations, emoticons, and shouting.
Then there was the recent dustup between Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones and conservative blogger Milo Yiannopoulos, in which Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter and was arguing for his right to call someone ugly and unfunny in racially tinged ways and incite others to do worse. The case yet again highlighted how rampant the racism and abuse on the platform can be and how you basically have to be a famous person to get the company to do anything about it.
That's the topic of this well reported piece from BuzzFeed, which comes out of interviews with 10 "high-level former employees," and discusses how Twitter's "long history with abuse has been fraught with inaction and organizational disarray."
Taken together, these interviews tell the story of a company that’s been ill-equipped to handle harassment since its beginnings. Fenced in by an abiding commitment to free speech above all else and a unique product that makes moderation difficult and trolling almost effortless, Twitter has, over a chaotic first decade marked by shifting business priorities and institutional confusion, allowed abuse and harassment to continue to grow as a chronic problem and perpetual secondary internal priority. On Twitter, abuse is not just a bug, but to use the Silicon Valley term of art a fundamental feature.
The piece harkens back to perhaps the first high-profile case of abuse an inaction, involving blogger and early adopted Ariel Waldman back in 2008, in which one particular stalker/troll made her life a living hell and exposed a bunch of her personal information. She brought her case to CEO Jack Dorsey, who essentially told her he couldn't do anything about it, and it would be another six years before the company implemented a "report abuse" feature for individual tweets.
Then came, in the last several years, the high-profile cases of people like Sinead O'Conner, actor Matt Lucas (who faced abuse following the death of his partner), and Robin Williams' daughter Zelda Williams, who all spoke publicly about having to quit the platform due to abuse they'd suffered.
The debate, internally, seems to come down to Twitter never being able to decide if it was "a media company a broadcast platform that should be governed by content standards and practices similar to a a television network or a piece of the internet’s infrastructure, like an ISP, that should remain open and free," as BuzzFeed puts it.
The piece goes on to discuss how the company, particularly after its dismal IPO, was focused on growth above all else, and all changes to the product for reasons of curbing abuse and harassment fell by the wayside. One former employee says that all inaction just created "a honeypot for assholes," which is how many of us view Twitter today basically, it's not worth the potential stress and abuse just to have a hundred conversations with strangers or to have a broad platform for one's own 140-character thoughts.
BuzzFeed also makes the point that abuse and harassment tend to be more the concerns of women and minorities and as of 2015, Twitter's leadership was 79 percent male and 72 percent white. It's also notable that algorithms were written to protect celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and President Obama from abuse during live Q&As on Twitter, but no such protections exist for the average user.
Twitter just issued its formal response to the piece.
In response to today’s BuzzFeed story on safety, we were contacted just last night for comment and obviously had not seen any part of the story until we read it today. We feel there are inaccuracies in the details and unfair portrayals but rather than go back and forth with BuzzFeed, we are going to continue our work on making Twitter a safer place. There is a lot of work to do but please know we are committed, focused, and will have updates to share soon.
To BuzzFeed's point, though, is it really meaningful, ten years in, to claim you're so "committed" to solving a problem that you haven't come close to solving?