"I'm fed up with know-it-all, self-righteous people," read a frustrated text I received from my mom, Donna Larson, on Monday. As a casual Twitter user, my mom had just run into her very first trolls.
After sharing a link about President Obama commuting the sentences of drug offenders, a few accounts chimed in with unsolicited responses to her tweet.These accounts did not follow my mom, nor were they anyone she knew personally. Because she shared a link to a news article, people swarmed in and began harassing her. She did reply to one person (with a smiley face), before I told her to stop engaging with people on the Internet altogether—at least for long enough to make the trolls lose interest.
As a reporter, I'm used to people criticizing me. I open myself up to comments about my writing, my appearance, my beliefs—a broad range of things I post on the Internet are publicly available for bullies to pick apart whenever they want to. For better or worse, I've become accustomed to it. I hate it, but as a member of the media, it feels like I am required to have a public presence on Twitter, arguably the most media-centric social network.
My mom, on the other hand, only signed up for a Twitter account so she could follow my friends and I, read the stories I share, and try and keep up to date on news and information she might not find on Facebook. "I usually look at the Twitter news feed daily," she explained to me. "I especially like to check out people I follow in travel then trending news. I learned of several good deals on travel and sites I want to visit."
Like most of us, she's not there for the hate. But what exactly is she there for?
Twitter's identity crisis
In recent months, Twitter has come under scrutiny for its ongoing failure to articulate its own identity—a prerequisite for getting more people on the platform. After former CEO Dick Costolo stepped down and the company put Square CEO and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey in the interim role, even more questions arose around whether or not Twitter could fix its problems and make Wall Street, and its users, happy.
Even employees at Twitter struggle with how to define their company, according to a report from the New York Times.
Wander the halls of Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters and ask random employees in a black T-shirt with a little blue bird and they will give you a different answer, too. I’ve heard people tell me it’s a place for real-time communication, a second screen for television, a live-events vertical, a place for brands to connect with people and a media communications platform.
A constant complaint among Twitter users is the company's failure to control vitriol and harassment on the social network. Although under Costolo's leadership the company implemented a number of improved reporting features, rape and death threats continued apace while groups like #gamergate sprung up.
It's easy for someone to create an account, search for public tweets, and reply to these people without having any idea who the person is behind the Twitter handle.
The replies my mom received were nothing compared to what some people experience on Twitter. For instance, in January, Lindy West wrote about her experience regularly receiving violent threats against her safety, and Twitter's responses did nothing to remove the harassers or even consider them threats.
Twitter took a number of steps in the last few months to beef up the reporting process, and Costolo, while still CEO, admitted that the company "sucks" at dealing with trolls.
Discouraged on a hostile platform
Less of a seasoned Internet veteran, my mom was hurt by the hostile comments lobbed senselessly in her direction. As someone who doesn't live on the Internet and understand the community the way I do, strangers dumping garbage in her mentions was revolting.
"Bullying behavior is dangerous to a community, whether on a children's playground or in an adult community," she said. "It creates fear and intimidation. Both children and adults change their minds, not because of discussion and facts, but rather because of fear of personal attack."I've become disenchanted with Twitter lately, in part due to interactions like those my mom had. And her experience got me thinking—why would I encourage someone to get a Twitter account if they don't already have one?
Why would I encourage someone to get a Twitter account if they don't already have one?
The service is still a great way to stay up-to-date with news, and when you follow accounts and topics you enjoy, it can be very useful. However, sharing your own opinions is becoming more of a risk, because each time you hit "tweet," someone sitting behind an anonymous account can reply to it.
Instead of telling people to get an account to interact with other people, I think a major value is to follow already-established accounts as something of an RSS-feed. You can then connect to a service like Nuzzel, which distributes the relevant news that your networks and people you follow are sharing. That gives you the benefit of Twitter as a news source without making it necessary to engage with anyone at all.
Twitter is unique in that almost everything is public. Private accounts escape much of the potential for abuse other users experience, but unlike every other social network, interactions and profiles aren't siloed into individual groupings. On Facebook, you might run into a negative comment or a person who disagrees with you in an unhealthy way, but chances are, you know that person and can unfriend or comment accordingly.
Even Reddit, the site that's blasted time and again for hate-speech and discriminatory posts, has a moderation system. Flawed as its system may be, even Reddit isn't opposed to squashing hate speech. Unlike Twitter’s open arena, much of the bad stuff on Reddit thrives in separate subreddits.
Where I find the most value from Twitter these days is in group direct messages, individually-created groups that turn Twitter into a private feed. Right now I have five active group messages, all which include different friends from different backgrounds, some I know personally, some I only know from Twitter. There, I feel confident about sharing things; we might disagree with each other, but our voices are heard with civility, and the first reaction isn't to pounce. And we frequently share things privately to these Twitter groups explicitly because we are hesitant to post publicly for fear of harassment.
Beyond making your account private, the only real way to avoid hate speech on Twitter is to manually block or mute accounts and report them for harassment. New users might not be aware of how these features work, however, and it's difficult for someone who receives an overwhelming amount of harassment to constantly prune their mentions. (I explained to my mom how to block people she didn't want to appear in her mentions.) Even then, it's effectively a shadow ban until Twitter decides behavior is egregious enough to ban entirely—you might not see the continued harassment, but other people still can.
Twitter still remains a helpful tool for rallying individuals around certain causes and bringing together communities from different parts of the world to discuss issues in a public forum that would be impossible in any other circumstance. For instance, #BlackLivesMatter began as an activist hashtag to raise awareness about police shootings of black people including Mike Brown and Tamir Rice before turning into the rallying cry of an entire national movement. The problem is that activist hashtags work to both signal support for an issue and put a target on any tweet by making it easily searchable on Twitter.
Activist hashtags work to both signal support for an issue and put a target on any tweet.
Despite the swelling of positive voices around social issues and support groups, negative noise seems to be getting louder, echoing throughout bits of Twitter that don't actively put themselves in the way of trolls. As my mom’s Twitter experience makes clear, people who don't @-mention, hashtag, or subtweet are still feeling the wrath of contrarian anger.
There are ways to automatically block accounts—like the ggautoblocker and Block Together—but explaining to my mom or anyone else who isn't already familiar with bots and block lists takes more effort than simply implementing it for them. The learning curve to use Twitter isn't getting any easier even after the company revamped the homepage and added a bunch of mobile updates. Trolls just add another layer of convoluted frustration.
Twitter is not a naturally accessible platform.
I'm not alone in getting tired of Twitter. Other folks I've talked to, both in media and outside of the industry, are growing weary as well. Anecdotal evidence suggests that while Twitter is busy figuring out who will be its top brass and how they will change things for the better, Twitter users are tiring of the network they once loved.
Twitter is not a naturally accessible platform.
As much of a frustrating experience it might be, I do owe a lot to Twitter. Growing my social circle and professional network after moving to San Francisco would've been much more difficult without it. And I doubt all those people I now chat with on a regular basis would know me without our 140-character exchanges. I'm just not sure I would have the same experience had I joined the site now, rather than back in 2009.
The next few months will be crucial for Twitter. New leadership will need to figure out a direction and features that both nurture new and casual users like my mom while preventing those of us already entrenched in the community from being driven out by harassment.
After I tweeted about my mom's frustration, a Twitter representative messaged me offering her assistance. Because of my profile as someone in media, I have the advantage of Twitter being hyper-aware of any complaints I might have. It was great that they responded so quickly and assuredly, but I wondered if my mom, a non-verified user, would have received the same message. Twitter did not respond on the record when asked for a comment for this article.
In the meantime, my mom is blocking and reporting as necessary. She's not giving up on the service yet, nor is she going to stop sharing her opinions, although Monday's experience made her feel insulted and did make her question whether or not continuing to tweet is worth it.
"The solution is, argue back and get beaten up physically on the playground or verbally on Twitter or keep silent and go along with the bullies. Who is the winner?" she asked. "There is never a winner when people are bullied—the community is the loser."
Illustration by Max Fleishman