What if Twitter isn’t broken?

Earlier this month writer Lindy West left Twitter, claiming in a blog for the Guardian that it’s now unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.

This came as something as a surprise to me, as I’m none of these things and I still find it useful every single day. So this left me wondering: is Twitter really unusable thanks to trolls? Or is it simply that media commentators see this as an overwhelming problem as they’re the ones disproportionately targeted by trolls?

West is by no means the first high-profile user to walk away from the platform; her flounce is the latest in a long series of op-eds exclaiming Twitter is dead.

No one can deny there’s an abundance of arseholes on Twitter, ready to dole out abuse from behind a Pepe avatar. It’s hard to quantify quite how bad the problem of abuse is on Twitter, but research by Brandwatch found 15,000 instances of misogynistic hate speech used on Twitter every day. A report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) counted a whopping 2.6 million tweets containing anti-Semitic language in a year (that’s over 7,000 per day).

That volume of abusive language – and the failure to tackle the problem – is said to have been behind Disney’s decision to drop their bid to buy Twitter late last year.

Yet I’ve been an active, daily Twitter user for almost a decade and haven’t experienced much abuse or trolling at all. I still find the platform invaluable.  And I put this question to my network of mostly-not-high-profile Twitter users, who overwhelmingly felt the same.

Different filter bubbles deliver different experiences

That’s because your experience of Twitter is not like mine, or anyone else’s. Twitter is a vastly different experience depending on who you follow, who follows you, what you tweet about – and, perhaps to a lesser degree, your approach, style and tone.

I follow around 3,000 people who tweet about things I’m interested in – intranets, the digital workplace, digital engagement, data, innovation, FinTech, user experience, travel, London life – and broadly tweet about the same topics myself.

And while I follow a bunch of people and organisations talking about politics and current affairs, because I work for the government I steer clear of talking about politics myself. That, it would appear, is the critical difference; while Twitter began as a network for nerds, now it’s a highly political arena in which influencing and winning arguments is believed to shift mainstream public opinion enough to win or lose elections. In that super-charged environment controlling the message matters, and trolling is one way that control can be taken.

However, these two positions aren’t incompatible; while there does seem to have been a surge in abuse on Twitter in recent years, a great many users – probably the majority – using it to talk about work or what’s on the TV don’t experience this at all. 15,000 daily instances of misogynistic hate speech is a huge number – but that represents just 0.00003% of the 500 million tweets published daily. Tens of millions of people still enjoy using Twitter to talk about all manner of topics every day.

Asymmetry

Much of the differences in experience are down to volume; have a handful of followers and you might get the occasional rude tweet, but the bigger your following and the higher your profile, the more you experience the dark side of Twitter.

Nick Jones noted: “I think those under attack are often in very asymmetric relationships. I am followed by people like me who share similar interests. It is symmetrical.”

If you’re in the public eye you have far more people who want to talk to you, and a small but noisy proportion of them are pricks. This is particularly difficult for anyone who relies on their public profile to make a living – like journalists and authors, who these days are expected to build and manage their own fanbase online.

I was discussing this (online, natch) with a journalist friend – herself with a large Twitter following and with it a regular stream of keyboard warriors taking it upon themselves to Tell It How It Is. In her view the suggestion the trolling problem is overstated because it disproportionately affects media commentators comes across like a teacher saying that bullying doesn’t need addressing “it only happens to some privileged kids and most pupils love this school!”. Which is a fair challenge and an excellent analogy.

But no one’s saying the troll problem doesn’t need addressing. It does. However, there’s an important distinction to be drawn between the kind of stuff journalists are complaining about – essentially the comments section writ large, stuff they used to be insulated from in the days “letters to the editor” were the only form of feedback – and the general deterioration of civility on Twitter.

Twitter have been too slow to address abuse, and the steps they’ve taken to protect people have been inadequate. But solutions need to be designed for all users, not an unrepresentative group of power users.

Chilling effect?

For most average, unfamous social media users, abuse isn’t a daily experience that needs a mute button. Instead the presence of widespread trolling may have a chilling effect, with many – particularly women and minority ethnic users – consciously or unconsciously steering clear of controversial topics for fear of a potential backlash.

Anne McCrossan commented: “I think there is a mob mentality out there, and that some people find that out pretty decisively if they get on the wrong side of their prevailing opinion, whatever that happens to be.”

Social media strategist Rina Hiranand concurred, noting wariness of trolls “definitely stops me from tweeting now. It’s not that I think my views would attract anyone, but I’m aware that all it takes is one tweet for it to start.”

Nick Jones also admitted to self-censoring online: “I am very, very careful to think through how what I tweet might be misconstrued or used against me at some future point. It’s partly good training for the day job and an intellectual challenge.”

Regular users might experience a fraction of the bullying newspaper journalists do, but it’s likely they have a far lower tolerance for it too – and so need different mechanisms to deal with or report this behaviour. So trolling and bullying aren’t problems that can be fixed for the mainstream with a few code updates.

Blog posts like West’s, and the many hundreds of similar ones that preceded it, both overstate the issue – potentially exacerbating the chilling effect – and, by focusing on the problem only as it is experienced by high-profile individuals rather than the full spectrum of users, misjudge the solutions too.

Or, to use the school analogy, these flounce-pieces focus only on the privileged kids and not on the rest of the class.

Twitter has myriad problems; a lack of focus, obsession with new user growth over existing user delight, falling stock price, failure to monetise, and a decline in trust in the information it presents, not to mention inadvertently ushering in a kleptocracy. Against this backdrop, its failure to deliver an effective anti-trolling mechanism for minor celebrities is perhaps the least of its problems.

Instead, media commentators would do well to remember that for people (like me) who follow nice people talking about social innovation and user experience and other such non-controversial stuff it’s as useful as it’s ever been. Writing the platform off as irretrievably broken paints them as out of touch with the reality of how online abuse is experienced by the mainstream and its effects on public discourse.

Many thanks to Alex Blandford, Alex Hilton, Ann KempsterAnne McCrossan, Hadley Beeman, Ingrid Koehler, James Royal-Lawson,  Jonathan Phillips, Laura Marcus, Mike ButcherMike Wilkins, Nick Jones, Paul Clarke, Rachel Clarke, Rina Hiranand, Sarah Lay and Stuart Bruce for their input on this post.

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