Noah Smith: Anonymous trolls are crippling Twitter

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The Twitter logo appears on a phone post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Photo / Associated Press.
The Twitter logo appears on a phone post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Photo / Associated Press.

I love Twitter.

I use it every day.

I've made a number of friends using the service, and often have interesting exchanges with an even larger number of colleagues and smart people.

It has been essential to my career; it's hard to imagine doing my job without Twitter or some similar tool for connecting with the public.

But Twitter has big problems.

Its user growth to a trickle, with total user numbers still only at of Facebook's.

And no one knows how many of those users are robots.

Twitter brings in lots of revenue but it loses money. It looked around for a buyer, but no one was interested. User harassment is rife, causing a number of high-profile celebrities to quit the service.

Why is Twitter doing so badly, and how can it be fixed?

Part of the answer probably lies in the company's culture.

"Hatching Twitter," a 2013 history of the company written by Nick Bilton, reveals that Twitter's history has been one of power struggles, boardroom coups and strategic confusion.

The main contest was between Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams, two of the service's creators (the third founder, Noah Glass, was pushed out early).

Dorsey, now the chief executive officer, eventually won the protracted power struggle, but the leadership turmoil left its mark on the corporate culture.

But after using the service for more than five years now, I'm convinced that the biggest problem is inherent to the technology itself. Short messages - what makes Twitter Twitter - are inherently conducive to insults, ill will and degraded discourse. Meanwhile, anonymity and the ability to message anyone on the site, although essential to Twitter's nature, enable harassment.

Bilton's history reveals that Dorsey and Williams didn't just fight over power and fame - they had different fundamental ideas of what Twitter ought to be. Dorsey conceived of the service as a way of posting personal status updates, while Williams thought of it as a way of reporting news. Glass, the forgotten cofounder, thought of it as a conversation club. In reality, it's all three of those. Celebrities mainly use the site in the way Dorsey intended, while journalists and academics use it more the way Williams envisioned. And Twitter has certainly helped me connect with friends, meaning that Glass was probably on to something too.

But there's a fourth important use of Twitter that none of the founders seems to have envisioned: Twitter is an ideal platform for being a jerk.

Unlike Facebook, Twitter is an anonymous service. What's more, unless you've blocked or muted someone, anyone can talk directly to anyone else on the site. You can tag other users in a tweet, and that other user can't undo the tag, unlike on Facebook. This means that if you're even a moderately high-profile person - an actress, a journalist, a politician - you'll constantly be subjected to a barrage of harassment by everyone who doesn't like who you are or what you have to say. This includes not just people in your own circle, or even in your own country - it's people anywhere in the world. Antisemitic trolls sitting in their basements in Hungary can threaten to send Jewish-American journalists to the ovens. Misogynistic teenagers in Australia can make rape threats against female journalists in Canada. There's even a popular comedy video series of celebrities and politicians reading mean tweets written about them.

Twitter acts as a force multiplier for evildoers.

A recent study by the Anti-Defamation League found that most antisemitic harassment comes from just 1,600 accounts - many of them probably from outside the US. But those 1,600 have managed to make life very difficult for many of Twitter's Jewish users. Witness the attacks unleashed on writer Dana Schwartz after she criticized Donald Trump's son-in-law.

Racism against black people is even more widespread. A flood of sexist and racist tweets recently drove "Ghostbusters" actress Leslie Jones off Twitter. And harassment of women is probably the most common and of all.

After much initial reluctance, Twitter is more and more of the harassers' accounts. But because it takes only minutes to generate a new pseudonym, they don't stay gone for long.

Yes, the dedicated harassers are just a few bad apples.

But in any community or social network, there is some minimum number of bad apples required to spoil the whole apple cart.

And because of anonymity and unrestricted messaging, Twitter's minimum number is exceptionally low.

But beyond active harassment and malfeasance, Twitter is simply conducive to hurt feelings.

It's a lot easier to deliver an insult in 140 characters than to give a nuanced explanation of why you disagree with someone.

The length restriction makes it easy to misinterpret things that other people say, and misinterpretation often leads to intolerance, aggression and closed-mindedness.

Even reading my own tweets, it's easy to see how many of them could be misread as dismissive, arrogant and cruel.

I don't know how to solve these problems. Many seem inherent to the technology, meaning that making Twitter a nicer place to be might require a deep rethink of the way the service works. But with user numbers plateauing and negative publicity increasing, this should be a top priority. For the sake of a service I still love to use, I hope that Dorsey is able to come up with something.

Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University and a freelance writer for finance and business publications.

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