As I predicted a few months ago, Twitter has been given a new lease on life by becoming our new form of official state media. Every American who wants to be up-to-date needs to watch Twitter right now, because that's where the President expresses his unfiltered thoughts and where many people first respond to him.
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But watching Twitter doesn't mean participating in Twitter, and that's where Twitter gets in trouble. The platform has become known for widespread, nasty harassment that's as vomitously toxic as possible while still staying barely on the right side of stalking laws.
The Trump effect also doesn't seem to be making Twitter any money, as it charted out another unprofitable quarter in this morning's financial results. Twitter may be a necessary part of the national conversation, but it seems to be a distasteful and controversial one where advertisers don't want to plunk down their dollars.
The company tweaked its harassment-muting tools again this week, offering a new "safe search" feature and burying replies from low-reputation throwaway accounts.
Twitter's limp-rag approach to muting harassment shows that it still doesn't really care beyond lip service. Even if Twitter wanted to stay the "free speech wing of the free speech party" and ban no one, it could go a lot further to make its users feel welcome.
For instance: how about a hate slider? Keep it at one if you only want a positive experience. Level two could let in some polite but vigorous disagreements. Ratchet up to three for the occasional slur. Tick it to four for text-only insults. Push it to five if you want to be assaulted by hate memes. Go all the way to six to bask in the death threats.
That's not what we're getting, though. We're getting perpetually slightly overthought, easily defeatable muting tools, followed by misery and outrage, followed by more easily defeatable muting tools. It's like Twitter is an elementary schooler whining through her fraction problems: she knows she has to do them, but she's going to do the minimum possible, and she's going to make it painful for you to make her do them.
That Still Isn't Getting Rid of the Nazis
Here's the thing, though. I don't really want a hate slider.
When I said Twitter needed a "comprehensive plan to get rid of the Nazis," I didn't mean a comprehensive plan to mute the Nazis.
Some behaviors should simply be unacceptable in any social context. If someone at my office went around posting photos of their co-workers being gassed by Nazis and chortling, I'm pretty sure that person would be fired.
If I was at a party and someone hollered, "I WANT TO RAPE ALL THE WOMEN!" or took a dump on the dance floor, I'm pretty sure they'd be escorted out, even if they didn't specifically threaten an individual.
This has positive effects beyond making the party better. It makes the perpetrators scatter, deprives them of an audience, and may even cause them to feel shame.
When I proposed that Twitter get rid of Nazis, I ended up getting a bunch of disingenuous replies about "well, who do you define as Nazis? Doesn't that mean everyone? Isn't everyone you dislike a Nazi?" No. That's a straw man argument. I'm also pretty sure it'll pop up in the comments on this column. In general, if you're stuck advocating or defending rape, murder, or torture, you should probably check yourself morally.
Twitter's new tools supposedly include a better internal process for keeping banned users from popping up again. That's by far the best thing I heard about its changes. I suspect the number of toxic Nazis tossing around gas-chamber memes and racial slurs is actually pretty small, but they're ruining the whole party.
(Yes, I know that last year I said Twitter shouldn't have banned Milo Yiannopoulos, but read my argument there: the problem was that they were using him as a scapegoat and then not going any further.)
Twitter needs to start swinging the ban-hammer a lot more freely on harassers who try to intimidate other users. It needs to grow up and stop pretending it isn't the host for its own party. Until it starts throwing out the folks taking a dump on the dance floor, it's going to have trouble attracting decent people. Even if it gives you a clothespin to put on your nose for the smell.