Twitter's toxic party: Anything goes, everyone’s invited and the host is too terrified to set down house rules

What made Twitter great at first was destined to drag it down—but the company won't abandon its freewheeling vision

Published February 2, 2016 12:00AM (EST)

 (<a href=''>RapidEye</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(RapidEye via iStock)

Ever feel like you’re the person at the party whose only means of communication is yelling over the music “I hate this place!” to other people who likewise hate this place?

I’m a nerdy writer who spends way too much time on the Internet. A huge portion of my social circle is people I only know through Twitter, including a few people I’ve come to consider close friends. Twitter played a big role in opening professional doors for me and letting me make a living as a writer.

And yet I spend quite a lot of time on Twitter bitching about how much Twitter sucks. Which is just peer pressure, really, because most of the people I talk to on Twitter share that sentiment. I’ve already quit Twitter for extended breaks a couple times now, only to come back because I miss specific people who are hard to get in touch with otherwise, only to be reminded all over again why I left.

I say all this because it means that the news that Twitter’s stock is tanking and four top executives are leaving is validating. It means that I’m not just crazy or weird, and I don’t just have crazy or weird friends--it really is true that there’s something deeply broken about this service, something that’s initially addictive and habit-forming but ultimately toxic. There’s a logic behind which Twitter meteorically surged onto the scene in 2009 only to see stagnant user growth once it “matured” and, like many social tech darlings, to struggle to actually make a profit.

Part of this is the usual logic of the early adopters setting the tone for a community and then complaining that it’s been ruined once it became too popular--a complaint that’s been current on the Internet since the “Endless September” of 1993 on Usenet. To some degree this is totally independent of the technical details of the platform--Trent Reznor famously migrated to Twitter away from the forums on his own website in 2009 because he found Twitter a healthier community, despite having far less power to filter people’s access to him on Twitter. Turns out it was just a matter of time before the trolls followed him there, and once they did, the experience of online visibility quickly turned as negative as it had been.

This is why I find the brief flurry of excitement that springs up over new sites like Ello or Peach to be annoying; whatever respite there is from online toxicity on the new site is only because of its novelty, and it turns out to never have any built-in design protections to prevent it from becoming as bad or worse than existing platforms once it gets popular.

But some of it is specific to what the allure of Twitter is. There’s a saying going around: “The great thing about Twitter is you can talk to anybody. The awful thing about Twitter is you can talk to anybody.”

The big draw to Twitter in 2009 was the idea that you could approach random famous people you admired--Trent Reznor, for instance--and send them a message immediately and directly without having to go through any kind of intimidating filtering system. It’s like being at a giant cocktail party with all your favorite celebrities, writers and politicians mingling in the open area by the bar. No receptionists, no “handlers,” just sidle up to your idol if you dare and break the ice.

It isn’t surprising that, like any party with an insufficiently discriminate guest list, this could turn sour pretty quickly, hence the Twitter-ism of complaining about “randos in my mentions.” Just like at a real party at a real bar, women in Twitter especially get the charming experience of having weird obscene come-ons sprinkled throughout every conversation. Count on anyone who’s the least bit “controversial” being angrily confronted by people who think their presence at this metaphorical cocktail party is tacit consent to stand trial at the court of public opinion.

The interesting question that Twitter the company won’t answer is whether or not it's in favor of the culture of Twitter the community. After all, Twitter the community is caught between the positive and negative side of “openness” on a regular basis, which makes it hard for Twitter the company to decide on a party line.

Hence the perennial complaint that any simple fix for the harassment problem gets ignored by Twitter the company because it clashes with Twitter’s emphasis on “engagement.” For years people have asked for tweaks to make Twitter more usable, like keeping blocked users from showing up in searches or hashtags, keeping conversations in your replies from auto-tagging you, having some limited ability to edit tweets after they go out.

All of these would be aimed at making it harder for people to drag you into conversations you don’t want to be in, i.e., to start A Whole Thing on Twitter. That, unfortunately, would also make it harder for the spontaneous conversations to start that make Twitter rewarding in the first place--the much-touted ability to develop lifelong penpals out of chance interactions--and so no matter how common-sense they seem, Twitter keeps refusing to implement any “engagement”-dampening measures.

There’s also something Twitter doesn’t want to admit, which is that the massive explosions of negativity on Twitter, as much as they damage Twitter’s brand in the long term, drive a lot of Twitter’s traffic. The famous incident where Justine Sacco went viral for a bad tweet and was savaged on social media for hours during her flight to South Africa not only created the usual flurry of reaction pieces linking to funny tweets that’s been one of Twitter’s major value propositions for media companies, but generated actual ad revenue when savvy marketers jumped on a harassment campaign as a useful hook for selling in-flight Wi-Fi.

Twitter would prefer not to have to deal with the fact that it’s currently serving as the Internet’s drama merchant--that some of its most valuable content is the fodder for TMZ and the Enquirer, that it’s a magnet for the low-budget Internet version of old-school paparazzi hunting juicy embarrassing scenes.

Twitter would prefer to simply pretend that problem doesn’t exist, hence the effort it’s put into stuff like a “Moments” feature that curates tweets about current events--making Twitter into a weak knockoff of the dozens of existing current-events news sites that link to Twitter--and, when it turned out no one cared about Moments, taking the amazingly brazen tack of moving the Moments icon around in hopes that people would click on it by accident.

It’s just one of many amazingly tone-deaf moves the site has made, along with changing the star icon for “Favorites” into a heart icon for “Likes”--a harmless and meaningless change that executives don’t seem to understand pissed people off precisely because it’s a gesture to the idea of positivity without doing anything concrete to make the site’s content actually positive.

Here’s an example of what I mean: Far simpler than the effort needed to roll out the “Favorites” to “Likes” switch, which was a surprisingly comprehensive and well-coordinated rollout across all of the official Twitter apps, would be changing Twitter’s default font face to one that distinguishes between uppercase “I” and lowercase “l.”

Right now, anyone who has either letter in their name can get “hacked” just by someone taking the time to make a username that looks the same as theirs, and then impersonate their target saying horrific, shocking things guaranteed to get viral traction before they get caught.

Does that sound like a ridiculous, puerile thing for a social media site aimed at grown-ups to have to concern itself with? Well, it is, but it also got a friend of mine harassed for months because of a fake tweet mocking autistic people. In an irony layer cake with possibly too many layers to fully parse, the makers of the proposed wildly irresponsible social app Peeple got irresponsibly blasted by mainstream media outlets for tweets they didn’t write because their Twitter handle had an “l” in the name.

Twitter could do something about this--making it harder to spoof usernames by changing the font face is, indeed, literally the least they could do--but then they’d have to take a stance on the idea of impersonation/”parody” accounts. Which would be tough, because parody accounts have been part of Twitter’s culture since the beginning and because lots of tweeps think parodies being mistaken for the real thing is hilarious (when the blowback doesn’t directly affect them). Some of Twitter’s most popular accounts are so-called parody accounts that are pretty openly trading on their tweets being mistaken for real celebrities’.

There’s Twitter’s dilemma in a nutshell. A party atmosphere is awesome because of how fast hilarious bullshit can spread regardless of the facts. A party atmosphere is frightening and dangerous because of how fast hilarious bullshit can spread regardless of the facts.

Ultimately Twitter’s one nod to the idea that the fact that people screwing with each other on Twitter is a problem is probably its most frustrating, opaque, annoying feature of all--verified accounts.

In theory verified accounts--that coveted blue checkmark--exist because some people are well-known enough celebrities that Twitter users need to be reassured that the person behind the account really is the celebrity and not a “fan” or “parodist.”

In practice the process behind verification is frustrating and arbitrary; I personally was never even approached about getting verified while I was in the national news and getting mobbed by trolls constantly every day, but then immediately got the blue checkmark once I got a byline at a Bay Area tech publication. There are people with hundreds of thousands of followers who are constantly harassed who’ve never gotten a checkmark and people who have less than a thousand followers who are verified apparently because they know someone in San Francisco.

And though Twitter has repeatedly claimed verification is not an “exclusive club” for better treatment at Twitter’s hands and only exists for the sake of public interest, it pretty clearly functions as an exclusive club. There’s no other reason why, as a verified user, I get a special tab to show me notifications only from other verified users. There’s no other reason why verified users would get to use Twitter without seeing ads, or verified users would get early access to a “quality filter” to clean up the most offensive tweets on their feed.

Twitter, in other words, has implicitly acknowledged that they do see themselves as having an elite club of celebrity users that other users come to interact with—“guests of honor” at the party--and have made little overtures to try to make life better for those specific users. Like an insincerely smiling party host they won’t acknowledge this; they maintain the fiction that all guests are treated equally so they won’t have to codify how the unequal treatment works or who gets it, so they won’t have to explain why exactly some people are verified and others aren’t or why exactly non-verified users are less deserving of a “quality filter.”

This is the enduring theme of trying to get answers out of Twitter about what exactly they want their platform to be or where they stand on current Twitter happenings. Twitter the community is an anything-goes no-man’s-land, the kind of party where every five minutes there are glasses being thrown against the wall and tables overturned, because Twitter the company, like an overindulgent doormat of a host, is terrified of taking sides or setting ground rules.

Hence weird, self-defeating gestures like quietly removing a blue checkmark from one of Twitter’s most notorious serial abusers--simultaneously undermining two of Twitters’ long-held dogmas, that Twitter upholds its Terms of Service against harassment and that verified users aren’t some kind of special club, by levying no sanctions against a serial harasser other than kicking him out of the special club.

Does someone being a jerk on Twitter mean there’s less public interest in knowing their account isn’t impersonated? Does it somehow make them less entitled to a “quality filter” against others harassing them? Of course not, but Twitter is a doormat host that won’t ever kick someone out of the party, not if they have enough followers to bring in clicks and revenue, so instead they just remove the special gold seal on their invitation.

The easiest way to phrase this criticism is that Twitter is trying to be all things to all people, but the real answer is that Twitter was never trying to be anything in particular in the first place. It has the same problem pretty much all social media companies have--there was no plan when the app was first developed, and pretty much everything about it, from the 140-character limit to concepts like username tagging and hashtags, is an accidental result of it being initially developed as a way to organize mass SMS texts.

When you don’t do anything to define who you are, you can’t complain when other people end up defining you themselves. You can’t grab the cachet of accidentally becoming a nexus for political protest without also owning that you’re a nexus of trolling celebrities right after their parents die. You can’t be the Cool Dad who keeps an open bar for all the neighborhood kids--the “free speech wing of the free speech party”--and disclaim all responsibility when someone burns the house down.

The most recent news in the Twitterverse is that even when a woman reports some quite shocking sustained harassment on Twitter, the courts will do nothing to protect her, because “Twitter is public.” If someone wants to follow you around catcalling or heckling you after everything you say, they can. If someone wants to burst into any discussion you try to have using the platform and try their level best to disrupt it, they can. If someone wants to call down a mob of people to make their very best case why you should “delete your account” every time you open your mouth, they can.

It’s that kind of party, in other words--the kind of party you generally regret going to once things start getting ugly around 1 o’clock. We have our answer to the perennial question of whose problem the ugliness on social media is--the law and the courts say it isn’t theirs. The problem is with Twitter.

Just recently the tech writer Sarah Jeong reported on Twitter’s achingly gradual, piecemeal adoption of an anti-harassment stance--the gradual rollout of the idea of quality filtering from verified to everyday users, adopting the blunt sledgehammer of mass-blocking tools after users had been rolling their own for years.

Then, a couple weeks later, Jeong herself went dark on Twitter, locking her account because she broke one of the many unwritten social laws of the Twitter no-man’s-land--vocally criticizing supporters of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders--and got flooded with too much crap for her account to be usable.

I see this happening at a greater and greater rate, people just throwing up their hands in disgust and finding the service to not be worth the hassle anymore, despite the sublime moments of comedy and connection you can find on it, despite having made close friends there. Telling stories on Twitter has gone sour now that you know the story might make headline news and blow up in the faces of the people the story is about. Telling jokes on Twitter has gone sour now that we know everyone’s best jokes are being monitored for the chance to steal them and monetize them, and everyone’s worst are being saved up for the chance to drag them should they get more famous later on. You can’t even shill for breakfast cereal on Twitter without being drowned in a flood of obscenity that’s some unclear mixture of ironic and sincere.

It’s that moment when you just know: This party isn’t worth it anymore.

Joking about the whistling-in-the-dark nature of these criticisms and threats to quit are as old as when Trent Reznor started the trend, of course. But now that the “Twitter quitters” include stockholders and executives rather than just well-known users, it might be a sign that the free market is finally, belatedly working--albeit with a ton of collateral damage along the way.

For my part, I’m fortunate to have the verified quality filter, to be using a ton of those clumsy block lists and to have made a resolution to pretty much stop using Twitter for its original purpose--meeting new and cool people by chance--and instead just using it to talk to people I already know, like the knot of people at a party who arrive and leave as a group and are careful not to make eye contact with anyone else.

I don’t know if it’s possible to salvage the serendipitous social connection baby from Twitter while getting rid of any portion of the stinking, scummy, septic bathwater. I don’t know if anything Twitter does now can retroactively undo the decisions that set the tone for what the community has begun.

The slow but accelerating degeneration of this party into a fiasco is going to continue no matter what I do, and I don’t know what I can do but try my best to not be part of the problem.

So carry on, rapidly-turning-over Twitter leadership, and I wish you the best at your impossible task. I’ll be #OverHere.

By Arthur Chu

MORE FROM Arthur Chu

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