Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

‘A Honeypot for Assholes’

Charlie Warzel of Buzzfeed spoke with ten former employees to find out why Twitter’s abuse problem is so shockingly bad. The answer?

[…] Fenced in by an abiding commitment to free speech above all else and a unique product that makes moderation difficult and trolling almost effortless, Twitter has, over a chaotic first decade marked by shifting business priorities and institutional confusion, allowed abuse and harassment to continue to grow as a chronic problem and perpetual secondary internal priority. On Twitter, abuse is not just a bug, but — to use the Silicon Valley term of art — a fundamental feature.

This article looks really bad for Twitter, but it effectively confirms something that was previously alluded to in a post by Biz Stone: they feel that not sanctioning users who are abusive is part of their corporate strategy. Warzel’s sources claim that the in-house rationale is because management thinks that it helps boost their monthly active user count.

Back in February, Umair Haque wrote a terrific article for Harvard Business Review that argues the precise opposite:

In an age of interaction, the simplest path to advantage is higher quality interaction. Abuse isn’t a nuisance that’s peripheral to “real” strategic issues. It is the central strategic issue. Offering low-quality interactions in an omni-connected world is just like selling defective products, the interaction age equivalent of faulty auto parts in the industrial age, or false advertising in the branding age.

Twitter knows that many users are also dissuaded by the bullying and vitriol that prevails on the platform. Last year, then-CEO Dick Costolo sent a memo to Twitter’s staff:

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.

Today, however, Costolo disputed Warzel’s articleafter the fact:

Total nonsense and laughably false as anybody who would speak on the record would tell you. Absurd.

Not even going to link to it.

Here’s the problem: everyone else was linking to it, especially in replies to Costolo‘s tweet. It’s caused enough of a firestorm that Twitter PR replied to it, though not in the way you might expect. They didn’t bother to denounce any specific statements in Warzel’s piece — rather, they disputed “inaccuracies in the details”, which seems tantamount to admitting that the thrust of the article is correct.1

Twitter clearly has an abuse problem. Though they haven’t released their employee diversity statistics this year, their stats from last year show a company profile that is overwhelmingly white and malethe demographic least likely to be on the receiving end of abuse and bullying. They need to take big steps, because whatever they’ve tried so far isn’t working.

  1. They also complained that they weren’t given adequate notice to respond, something which a Buzzfeed editor denies↩︎