I spent a year studying English Common law in college, and here’s the only thing I really remember: Law exists to prevent mob rule. It only survives when it’s considered effective by the masses. If it’s not, people start taking the law into their own hands. This is the precipice on which Twitter dangles right now.
You probably heard about former major league baseball player Curt Schilling going all Wild West on jerks who harassed his daughter on Twitter. I’m fine with what he did; in fact, I think it’s great. It’s time people realized there are consequences for the stupid, vile things they say online. It’s high time — past time — we cleaned up the neighborhood. I believe in free speech as much as the next Internet geek, but it’s also time the Internet grew up. Folks like those who said God-awful things to Schilling’s daughter need to be kicked out of the bar, pronto, and forced to live with the consequences of what they’ve done.
Now, you can all expect a bunch of other folks to follow suit, with varying results, of course. Curt Schilling can get justice — not to mention, protection from any potential response — because he’s famous. You probably can’t.
That’s why this is Twitter’s problem. After all, it’s their bar. As a refresher course in free speech law, the government can’t make a law preventing you from saying things in public. A company sure as heck can do that with its private property. You have no Founding Fathers-given right to be vile on Twitter.
I do appreciate the lovely parlor banter about chilling discussion and people’s rights to be assh**s, but save that for college, please. If you are an adult, you owe it to yourself to read the kinds of Tweets directed at people like Anita Sarkeesian, who campaigns against violence in video games. I won’t display them here — but however vile you imagine they are, triple that. Click that link to see a Mother Jones story which describes 157 “hate Tweets” she received in a single week. They are enough to snap anyone out of a philosophy-induced haze about free speech and social media.
So I was delighted recently when a leaked memo seemed to suggest that Twitter management was starting to get it.
“We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years. It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day,” CEO Dick Costolo wrote in an internal memo that was published on The Verge last month. ” I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It’s absurd. There’s no excuse for it. ”
He then promised to start kicking users off Twitter “right and left” for mishbehaving. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which also cheered the general message, paused on that last part. calling it a “dangerous sentiment.” I know, that’s what the EFF has to say, and I’m glad they are saying it. But enough is enough.
Creeps are running circles around decent people while we continue the collegiate debate here. I’m ready to give Twitter the right to kick people off the service right and left, with a very big IF. IF it doesn’t try to do this on the cheap, and IF it’s very transparent.
The real problem here is money, as it always is. Here’s a brief history lesson. Back when eBay was just about the only profitable firm on the Internet, it had a massive problem that threatened its very survival. Fraud was rampant. In some categories, such as expensive electronics, roughly half of all listings were fraudulent. After repeating the usual Internet BS about community policing (which is really discount policing), eBay finally got serious and hired a huge team of fraud fighters — human beings — who put in the heavy lifting of reviewing listings by hand and cleaning up their neighborhood.
Twitter has to do this. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s absolutely critical for its survival. In fact, it’s critical for the entire spirit of social media and perhaps the Internet itself. Twitter needs to grow up, grow a pair, and start investing in decency. What’s that you say, it’s not “scale-able?” When then just turn off the lights. It’s your bar. It’s your job to keep it safe. What we don’t want is a world of random justice doled out by Curt Schilling.
Why? Because Twitter can do this in a transparent, reasonable way. We all know some of these things will be tough calls. What is trolling and what is hate speech? Trolls say crap just to start angry discussions. People who fall for their tactics kind of get what they deserve. Hate speech is threatening. Yes, there are gray lines. A computer will never do a good job of figuring that out. But let’s get real — there is no confusion about the kinds of Tweets Sarkeesian often gets. Twitter did recently release improved tools for reporting problems, but we’ll see if there are improvements to response time. It shouldn’t take longer than a few minutes to get them removed. When there is a “false positive,” as there will be, Twitter should have a very prompt process for appeal. Right now, complaints often go to black holes, and the creeps know this, and take advantage of it. That’s the real problem, Twitter.
Your move. A million Curt Schillings are watching.