Another day, another celebrity leaves Twitter after a deluge of abuse.
This time, it was the turn of Lily Allen, who was attacked by trolls over the death of her son in 2010. She had been, characteristically, completely honest when asked by one user why she had experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, telling them it was the result of her stillbirth. She was then subjected to the most disgusting comments that certainly I have ever seen on the social media network.
Of course, being white, male, straight and absolutely unfamous, I have simply no idea of the level of abuse that many others have had to put up with. But for any other human being to even begin to think of the comments that I saw, on a topic that Allen herself previously described as “the most unfortunate thing that can ever happen to a person,” is simply beyond me. Naturally, she did the only logical thing and announced that she would be leaving Twitter.
My timeline is full of the most disgusting, sexist, misogynistic, racist shit. Really, new levels. I'm no masochist so I'll be back x— LILY ALLEN (@lilyallen) February 25, 2017
Since then, someone – under the name Dennis – has been active on the account. A telling screenshot was later posted.
Google ‘what can twitter do about trolls’ and you’ll find results stretching back years – literally all the way back to 2013. Twitter has been achingly slow to attempt to deal with trolls and abuse on its platform, despite a host of seemingly easily-implementable solutions suggested by commentators – these by Lance Ulanoff of Mashable being some of the most sensible.
Now, in a move seemingly unrelated to Lily Allen’s treatment, but with perfect timing, comes news that Twitter is finally rolling out a feature that has been demanded by users for an eternity: the ability to mute ‘eggs’ – people with no profile pic – as well as accounts without verified phone numbers or email addresses.
While this will still enable trolls to attack if they really want to – after all, you could just upload any old photo, and use an easily-signed-up-for email address – it will add that extra layer of irritation to the process, which will hopefully put off all but the truly committed of trolls.
It has also said that it will try to communicate more with people who file reports of abuse – so people will be notified when Twitter receives the report, and when the company takes action against that account, with the missives shown in the notifications tab.
You will also be able to mute specific words, including usernames from your timeline, as well as your notifications.
It seems to demonstrate that the company is finally starting to take abuse seriously. But why has it taken this long?
Well, a large part of the reason is that for a long time, it simply didn’t matter to them. Growth of accounts was everything, and there was no desire to put any more barriers than were necessary between a person and them creating an account. Besides, one of the best features of ‘early Twitter’ were the many parody accounts which constantly popped up (before everyone started doing them – remember Cristiano Ronaldo’s moth? He had about 400 accounts within seconds of making it on to the TV), which were made possible by the lack of a need for any sort of ‘real name’ verification process.
This decision not to require a real name was a critical strategic error by Twitter. Whereas Facebook realised early on that the simplest way to stop people being abusive was to force them to use their real name (although this was probably not their primary intention, it was a useful side effect), Twitter decided not to bother in order to chase growth.
Twitter decided to gamble that it didn’t necessarily need to know who you were in order to extract value from you – it simply needed you to consistently use an account and to be able to observe your behaviour and the information that is important to you. This 2011 Gigaom article explains it well.
Ironically, Google+ began with a ‘real name’ policy, and then abandoned it when it realised it had choked off its early growth – but alas, it was too late. Twitter went the other way and missed its chance to move at the right time, the trolls grew in confidence and ‘skill’ (if you can use that word) and it has become the festering pit of hate that we see today, manifested in the treatment of Lily Allen. For too long, it didn’t really affect them, until September’s failed attempt to sell themselves – a failure believed in large part to be due to their inability – deliberately or otherwise – to address the issue of trolling.
The latest announcements are a step in the right direction. Are they enough to completely stop trolling? Probably not.
And that sentence has been written too many times before.
Making Twitter a safer place is our primary focus and we are now moving with more urgency than ever.— Ed Ho (@mrdonut) January 31, 2017