Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sunday Long Read: No Class Twits

I'm on Twitter as a social media platform and it's pretty useful and even fun from time to time, but the reality is the company has had a decade-long problem with harassment of women and the folks behind Twitter still haven't bothered to take the kind of steps needed to address more than cosmetic damage.

On May 22, 2008, Ariel Waldman ran out of options. Waldman, then a community manager and blogger, had signed up for Twitter in March 2007 and in months had become one of the platform’s 100 most followed accounts. She was, by her own account, “addicted” to the service.

But soon after, the abuse began — for no reason other than that Waldman was a woman writing articles that occasionally touched on sex and technology. In June 2007, a stalker posted some of her private information in a string of threatening tweets. Waldman contacted Twitter, which banned the user in question from the public timeline. But over the next eight months, the targeted abuse and stalking intensified. By March 2008, exhausted and disillusioned by a torrent of tweets calling her a “cunt” and a “whore” and publicizing personal information like her email address, Waldman reached out to Twitter again, this time to the company’s CEO, Jack Dorsey. After a series of phone calls to the company went nowhere, Dorsey and Twitter went silent. So in May, Waldman went public, detailing her ordeal in a blog post, which caught fire in media circles.

Twitter, then still a startup, was fresh off a buzzy SXSW debut, and Waldman’s post was an unfamiliar bit of bad press, depicting Dorsey in particular as an unsympathetic, even cowardly, chief executive. “Jack explained that they’re scared to ban someone because they’re scared if it turned into a lawsuit that they are too small of a company to handle it,” Waldman wrote. While Twitter founder Biz Stone issued a formal acknowledgment of the problem, arguing that “Twitter is a communication utility, not a mediator of content,” Dorsey was silent. Co-founder Ev Williams was more critical, posting tweets that cast doubt on Waldman’s claims and halfheartedly apologizing with a simple “our bad.” Waldman was crushed. “Prior to my coming out, I had great relationships with them and considered some of them my friends,” Waldman told BuzzFeed News this month of the fallout. “I took it very personally. It sucked.”

More than eight years after Waldman’s ordeal, harassment on Twitter is rampant — so much so that it has become a primary destination for trolls and hate groups. So much so that its CEO declared, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years.” So much so that numerous high-profile users have quit the service, citing it as an unsafe space. Today, Twitter is a well-known hunting ground for women and people of color, who are targeted by neo-Nazis, racists, misogynists, and trolls, often just for showing up. Just this summer, actor Leslie Jones was driven off Twitter after a barrage of racist comments and death threats, only to return after a personal reassurance from Dorsey himself. Last week, Normani Kordei of the pop group Fifth Harmony also stepped away from the service after suffering years of “horrific and racially charged” tweets. Despite its integral role in popular culture and in social justice initiatives from the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter, Twitter is as infamous today for being as toxic as it is famous for being revolutionary. And unless you’re a celebrity — or, as it turns out, the president of the United States of America — good luck getting help.

According to 10 high-level former employees, the social network’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.

Twitter does have a lot to offer.  Unfortunately part of that offering is nearly guaranteed harassment and racist attacks (and the era of Trumpism sure as hell hasn't made the issue any better.)  I've had to fight off racist clowns on a regular basis, but I know the harassment can be orders of magnitude worse. I've been downright lucky by comparison to some friends of mine.

And the fact of the matter is people are leaving Twitter for that reason.  The company is scrambling to find a buyer and potential suitors are walking away at this point because of the harassment issue.  I'm finding I'm spending more time on Tumblr and other platforms these days, and even Facebook is better at curbing assholes. Whatever the next step in social media is, I hope the lessons of Twitter's 10-year campaign of failure are learned.

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