If Google and Facebook are the bread and butter of the Internet, Twitter is like the crumbs you find under the table at Starbucks. There are a million pieces everywhere, 140-characters of gibberish. You could say the bread crumbs are filled with nutrients, but most of them deserve to be swept up and thrown in the trash. While I'm highly dependent on the service--it's where I post links to my articles--it's starting to feel like a place that feeds trolls and not much else. It explains why user counts have flattened and why investors are starting to raise eyebrows.
Just recently, presidential hopeful Jeb Bush exemplified what is so incredibly powerful about the platform...and what is incredibly frustrating. He made a "grave" mistake by posting a photo of a handgun engraved with his name and the single word America. It's easy to see how you could take his posting out of context. Was he making a statement about gun advocacy? Sure. Was he also inferring that violence is part of our history? Maybe not, but Twitter reacted with a heavy dose of malice. A few users said he was hinting at suicide. Many made vile threats. One user even used graphic language in describing his family. It was abusive, wrong, and troubling.
Can we please figure out how to make Twitter more than a graffiti board for trolls?
I want to live in a country where you can post an image like that. And, I want to live in a country where people can then comment about the image. I'm not a fan of any restrictions on free speech, especially given my chosen occupation. And yet, it's a slimepit. I've recently decided that I'm OK with Twitter switching to a more robust publishing platform that allows much longer posts, basically taking on Facebook and the blogging services. I feel 10,000 character posts might encourage people to think a bit before they call a presidential candidate such hateful names. Your right to swing your Twitter attacks ends where my nose begins, right?
The troll problem has been around for many years. I was the victim of an abusive social media onslaught once, back in 2007. I reacted poorly: I deleted my Twitter account at the time. It was dumb because I had already built up a nice following, and then I had to start all over again with a fresh account. (Twitter doesn't exactly let you undelete anything, and you can't port one account to another, although I've heard celebrities get special treatment.) Because I was an early adopter, I used my full first and last name but then had to resort to something more esoteric.
Around 2010, I had another Twitter problem after an article posted. There were several thousand personal messages, most of them insults. I didn't delete my account, but I took a deep break for a while. I love engaging with readers, connecting with colleagues, and finding influencers on Twitter, but I also hate the fact that anyone can saying anything they want, regardless of whether it's true or not. As I said, I would not restrict free speech, but for some reason I never see the same level of abusive language on LinkedIn or Facebook, not to mention more private forums.
The great challenge here is that you can't really monetize trolls. Well, you can try, but they tend to be a little unpredictable. What can you monetize? A publishing platform. Something like Medium.com (a service started ironically enough by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams) that actually provides real content that's useful, well-written, and thoughtful. You can still post anything you want on Medium, but only the well-researched, accurate, and interesting posts gain any traction. They don't deal in bread crumbs like Twitter, because you can't monetize bread crumbs. If Jeb Bush had posted a thoughtful essay on gun rights on Medium, I'm guessing people would have written their own thoughtful essays as a rebuttal. Democracy wins.
Users are starting to balk on Twitter, though. We need an open platform that gives us at least a sense that we're able to interact directly with popular figures. (It's possible that Kanye West is the only major celebrity on Twitter that doesn't have a team of people scheduling out tweets.) But it's getting a little old, isn't it? We want quality, not quantity. We can spot a troll haven from a mile away. It's the same reason we can so easily identify spam in our email. It doesn't seem valuable.
That's what Twitter has now become. Both sides are wrong. Bush is wrong because he didn't seem to realize how much rage he would unleash with that image. The trolls are wrong for posting so much hate-speech, even though there is always a real person lurking behind the account. More accountability, better content, more privacy and security, longer posts, better integration into the physical world of gadgets and sensors, more useful tools--this is what will make Twitter more viable.
Until then, we're just going to get more of the same...and the trolls will win.