Sunday, February 2, 2014

Tweeting in a Trolling Paradise - the problem with Twitter culture and what we can all do about it

One of Twitter's greatest achievements – alongside the Arab Spring, the Inigo Montoya bot and getting the Pope to tweet – is being an incubator of trolls on an grand scale. It has such low barriers to entry and participation (including anonymity and its 140 character input limit) and weak normative cohesion (translation: no-one on Twitter agrees on how Twitter should be used) and limited ground-rules that it's an asshat's paradise.

Sometimes, as high-profile news stories of the past year have demonstrated, it's a misogynist, racist asshat's paradise. No-one should have to fight so hard as Cristina Criado-Perez to ensure that murder and rape threats should result in police charges, for example, but we seem to have gotten there in the end. 

One positive side-effect of this is we now seem to be having a long-delayed conversation about the kind of Twitter we want. Putting criminal threats and acknowledged hate speech to one side – a clear cut issue, or at least it ought to be - I think the rest of the debate revolves around two questions:

  • Where you draw the line between a troll and someone exercising their self-declared right to free speech / be an opinionated jerk on the internet.
  • Is there a better solution to trollish abuse than the block/ignore/suck it up advocated by the champions of the status quo.

For what it's worth, I don't believe the block and ignore strategy is sufficient, not least because it places all responsibility squarely on the individual, rather than the community or Twitter themselves. I think there is at least one easy, uncontroversial thing both could do which would make it a safer, less troll-infested space without impinging on freedom of speech.

Start talking about the kind of Twitter we want

One important thing the community could do is start taking collective responsibility for Twitter-space. For me, that means:

  • Talking about the kind of minimal social rules for the conversation the majority of users are prepared to accept.
  • Promoting positive norms for Twitter – if the user base can embed Follow Fridays for example, why not others?

One example of such a norm could be found in non-violent communication: don't just block; tell users when you feel offended by what they say (e.g. ad hominem attacks, rudeness) and ask them not to do it again. At present, there is an assumption in favour of not appearing to be upset - this needs to be challenged for change to occur and people to reflect on their behaviour.

We all have a role in shaping – even by tacitly condoning through inaction – Twitter's ground-rules, ideas of what is acceptable discourse, exactly as we do in any other social situation. Some of Twitter's defaults facilitate trolling – fine – we need to be taking steps together to redress that balance.

Twitter should support this conversation

I think it's unhelpful for Twitter to keep to the virtual equivalent of laying cable and only intervening when local law would probably require it anyway (e.g. for threats of violence or persistent harassment). I understand they don't want to set themselves up as moderators. This would be a commitment beyond their reach, nor does the infrastructure of Twitter enable this to be devolved to volunteers.

But they could support the kind of conversation among their users we're talking about in this post. Whether that's a forum, releasing their own positive memes into the wild or incentivising good Twitter citizenship, or something else as yet unthought of remains to be seen. 

The point for Twitter is to get past the false choice presented to them of sheriff or bystander and play a positive role in community building.

Kum ba yah, anyone?

I want to be very clear that I don't think embedding community-generated norms in Twitter is an alternative to intervening properly in cases of threat or repeated verbal abuse. That would be extremely naive.

But owning the conversation together is something we can all do to contribute to making Twitter a safer space without impeding free speech.

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