I love Twitter. I’ve been on it since 2009 and I now spend a lot of time on it — probably more than I should. But it’s addictive because (a) it’s a great way to write something and get instant feedback, (b) it’s a great way to catch up on articles I might have missed, and (c) it’s a great way to follow breaking news.
Yet, for all its strengths, Twitter is, as the business press tells us, in big trouble. It has some 310 million users and is the second-largest social media site behind Facebook (with 1.1 billion users) but it is not growing as fast as it once did, and not as fast as other sites such as LinkedIn, Google+, Tumblr, etc. Wall Street is frustrated that Twitter isn’t being at effective at “monetizing” its eyeballs as competitors are. In 2014, an Atlantic article even predicted the death of Twitter.
Here is a modest suggestion for what Twitter can do to fix one of the problems that most annoy me and I imagine many other users: the problem of crackpot, abusive tweets. The paradox of Twitter is that the more followers you have (I currently have over 20,000), the more abusive tweets you are likely to get calling you various scatological names or passing along insane conspiracy theories. Some of this is bearable, but after a while you want to take a hot bath and never go back into the cesspool again. I’m not suggesting that these offensive tweets comprise the bulk of what’s on Twitter — far from it. I would have stopped using it long ago if that were true. But it’s more of a chore than it should be to find the good stuff in your feed among all the abusive attacks that are out there.
How to solve this issue? Twitter does some internal policing but it’s not very effective — it does delete some accounts belonging to terrorists and the like, but there have been accusations that a few right-wing voices have also been unfairly banned or targeted. There would be less need for Twitter’s managers to make controversial judgment calls if they simply declared that everyone had to come clean about their identities. Twitter should end anonymous accounts. Facebook verifies the identity of each user, which may help to explain in part why it’s so much more successful. Why can’t Twitter?
I made that very suggestion Sunday on Twitter and the outraged reaction I drew provides more evidence for why this reform is desperately needed.
To be sure, some tweeters made a reasonable argument — didn’t Voltaire and Tom Paine write anonymously? True, but, sorry to break it to you, guys, you’re not producing the 140-character version of “Candide” or “Common Sense.” In any case, there was a good reason that Voltaire and Tom Paine sought anonymity — they feared retribution for their writing from the state, whether monarchist France or Britain. Today it makes sense to allow anonymous Twitter accounts in repressive states such as Russia, China, and Iran. But I’m pretty sure that 99.9 percent of the people responding to me live in the United States where, last I checked, the First Amendment still applied.
Taking advantage of their constitutional free speech rights, these Twitter sages responded to my proposal with reasoned arguments such as…”
“How much of a cuckservative do you have to be to cry to @twitter to protect you from s–tposting lmao.” (This from a user identified only as “Dongald Tramp.”) “he wants to ruin peoples lives who don’t have mainstream views” (Strasserite NS). “You belong in a prison cell Max, not on twitter.” (P.T. Carlo).
“Yeah, you should have the ability to get people fired if they beat you in an argument using wrong think. It’s only fair” (“AdolfJoeBiden”). “Joe” posted a picture of Homer Simpson reading a card saying, “Always do the opposite of what Jews say.” TotalWar45 (his symbol is a swastika) posted a picture of a noose with the words “Use it.”
This is my critics making the case for me. The cowards who hide behind anonymous accounts to spew bile need to either shut up or take ownership of their views for the whole world to see. I bet if Twitter were to end anonymous accounts, it would see a temporary dip in users but in the long run it would clean up the discussion and make it much more attractive to ordinary users who don’t want to be in a discussion space where the loudest voices are the most abusive and mindless.
If Twitter doesn’t address this issue, the marketplace will. I note, for example, that the Egyptian blogger and dissident Wael Ghonim has started a new website called Parlio that hosts discussions on current events, just as Twitter does, but only among an invited community of identified users. I find that I’m using Parlio more because I can find a more reasoned engagement there than I do on Twitter. Parlio is not, of course, going to threaten Twitter’s business anytime soon, but it is an augury of what can happen if Twitter doesn’t address the problem of anonymous hate-speech that is poisoning its user community.