Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Jack and the Mean Talk

Jack Dorsey:

We love instant, public, global messaging and conversation. It’s what Twitter is and it’s why we‘re here. But we didn’t fully predict or understand the real-world negative consequences. We acknowledge that now, and are determined to find holistic and fair solutions.

We have witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns, and increasingly divisive echo chambers. We aren’t proud of how people have taken advantage of our service, or our inability to address it fast enough.

That’s an extraordinarily frank admission. I admire that. So what will Twitter do about it?


Recently we were asked a simple question: could we measure the “health” of conversation on Twitter? This felt immediately tangible as it spoke to understanding a holistic system rather than just the problematic parts.

Dorsey points to an article from Cortico,1 a nonprofit firm that “aims to strengthen an American public sphere weakened by political, cultural and socioeconomic isolation“:

This experience led us to the idea that perhaps we could measure aspects of the health of the public sphere—in terms of communication exchanges between groups or tribes—grounded in data from public social media and other public media sources. As a starting point, we are developing a set of health indicators for the U.S. (with the potential to expand to other nations) aligned with four principles of a healthy public sphere:

  1. Shared Attention: Is there overlap in what we are talking about?

  2. Shared Reality: Are we using the same facts?

  3. Variety: Are we exposed to different opinions grounded in shared reality?

  4. Receptivity: Are we open, civil, and listening to different opinions?

This sounds a lot like Twitter will reference Cortico’s techniques to try to automate the hate away from conversations, but a post on Twitter’s blog indicates that they have no idea how to do this. I’m skeptical of its success. I’m concerned that Dorsey sees it as a problem, but has waited too long to do anything about it and now wants to invent a way to do it automatically, like a university student who waited to start writing their ten-thousand word essay until the night before it’s due. It seems earnest, but also a bit desperate.

I think that a better start would be to ban Nazis. I mean that literally. Flag any account where its name, handle, location, bio, or recent tweets contain allusions to Hitler normally used by white supremacist groups: “1488”, “HH”, “14 words”, and other hate symbols in context. That gives human operators the ability to sift through heaps of these accounts and ban the ones that are clearly and obviously Nazis, of which there are frighteningly many. This isn’t a perfect solution; it’s barely scratching the surface. But it would be a material change in how Twitter operates and a clear line as to what they do not tolerate. “No Nazis” should not be a controversial point of view.

  1. I had never heard of Cortico before Dorsey posted this, so I went to Wikipedia. There’s no entry for the company; there is, however, an entry for cortiço, a term used in Portugal and Brazil to describe ultra high density housing with poor sanitary conditions. I don’t know where the American firm got their name, but that’s a hell of an association. ↩︎