Things Biz Stone Told Me (Part Two)
If you missed the first post, I didn’t actually speak to Biz Stone. He whispered these sweet nothing in my ear via his book, Things a Little Bird Told Me.
The second thought that I chewed on (that I am now passing to your mouth-y brain to chew on) came on page 123, but the discussion was spread out across the book. It was a topic that came up many many times and can be summarized like this: we don’t need no stinkin’ moderation.
Cough… I will bet you 20 rape jokes that you do.
Stone writes (on page 123):
We tried to keep our goal pure: to connect people everywhere instantly to what was most meaningful to them. For this to happen, freedom of expression was essential. Some Tweets might facilitate positive change in a repressed country, some might make us laugh, some might make us think, some might downright anger a vast majority of users. We didn’t always agree with the things people chose to tweet, but we kept the information flowing irrespective of any view we might have about the content.
What Stone didn’t cover in his optimistic but not very realistic look at the tool is that some tweets may do something much more damaging than anger people. And maybe it is simply because Stone writes from the privilege of being a white male (and surrounding himself with other white males as the primary creators of Twitter) that he doesn’t acknowledge Twitter’s misogyny problem. It’s not just Twitter, of course, who has a misogyny problem: anywhere that you let trolls run free under the umbrella of free speech you will see rape jokes. (And this just covers the online world’s problem with women. I’m not even going to open the door to peek at the racism or body image shaming or homophobia or… the list is really endless.)
Free speech is great until it’s not great because people aren’t speaking responsibly. Free speech is great until people are people, and they look at the offer of free speech as a pass to say whatever they chose regardless of who gets hurt in the spewing of their words. Many people who have been on the not-great side of free speech, feeling silenced or fearful from someone else’s words, can see the benefit of moderation. Of setting up a clear community guidelines and enforcing them. Is enforcing community guidelines on a site as large as Twitter expensive: yes. Is it difficult: yes. Would they need to employ many many people in order to ensure that users are not abusing others: yes. But should they do it?
Well, if what he says on page 157 is true — that unlike Google, his “priorities are flipped. People come before technology.” — then yes, they should be monitoring the site for tweets that stray outside their community guidelines.
Twitter, by the way, has community guidelines. I would argue that they’re built with business and legalities first, and people second. Their guidelines say that you can’t purchase followers, but there is nothing barring you from telling women you hope that they’re raped. In fact, there is nothing in their guidelines about treating people respectfully.
Biz Stone (and no, he’s not with Twitter anymore, but this is the ideology he left as a footprint on his old site and one that he is proudly carrying into his new site) says that he puts people before technology, but I want to know where free speech falls in that hierarchy. Is free speech before people? Do people come before free speech? Is free speech more important than people having a good user experience with the site? Should women (or pick your group) feel safe to venture on the site? Or is it more important that people are allowed to say whatever they want to say?
Based on Stone’s own words on the Twitter blog, I would guess that the order of the hierarchy is free speech, the safety of women, and then technology. In a post titled “The Tweets Must Flow” (which he used two paragraphs from page 123 in the book, word-for-word… isn’t that one of the things that got Jonah Lehrer in trouble? Cannibalizing his own work?) he writes,
At Twitter, we have identified our own responsibilities and limits. There are Tweets that we do remove, such as illegal Tweets and spam. However, we make efforts to keep these exceptions narrow so they may serve to prove a broader and more important rule—we strive not to remove Tweets on the basis of their content.
In other words, truly, say whatever you wish to say, regardless of the human beings who receive your words.
I often wonder if sites stand under a banner of free speech out of laziness. Sure, monitoring tweets would be a logistical nightmare, but it could be done. There would be a cost, it would be difficult, but it could be done, especially if they enlist the help of Twitter users. It is cheaper and easier to claim free speech as the reason for why they only get involved in banning users when the transgressions hit the mainstream media, as was the case in the trolling of Zelda Williams.
I thought there was so much good in Stone’s book, but his view of the site was so far skewed from what I observe on the site, and really, what has been well-documented in the media as an on-going problem with the site. Take Back the Tech gave Twitter a failing grade of F (as opposed to Facebook’s sub-par D+) for their horrible track record in protecting female users from abuse on their site. While it is entirely possible to follow nice people and have a decent Twitter experience, try following a popular hashtag for a bit and see what pops up in the stream. You will see the unfiltered, uncurated Twitter. And it will make you question why you’re on the site at all, flying around with that flock.
On page 183, Stone pooh-poohs those people who say that trolls run amok on the site.
At Twitter, we didn’t need an army of people deleting and blocking accounts. This is why large, unregulated, self-organizing systems with a hundred million people using them can function without much disruption. If people weren’t nice, I couldn’t do my work.
I wish Stone’s vision for Twitter matched the user experience. But I walked away from these chapters feeling as if I was talking to the parent of the school bully. Of course their kid was perfect! Of course their kid did no wrong! They had the nicest child in the world! And you stand there, wondering how the hell they see this perfect angel, even in the face of all the evidence the principal and other parents have presented showing the child to be a monster.
Is Twitter a monster? Of course not. It’s a tool. But it’s currently a communications tool without any guidelines concerning respect. And that can be a very scary thing.
Change is coming to Twitter. But it will be in the Facebook-ization of the Twitter stream. Quite soon, Tweets will not longer appear in chronological order. The algorithm will place in front of you what it believes you most want to read. Rather than focusing their energy on curating the feed a la Facebook, I would love it if they dedicated some energy to making Twitter a safe environment for all users.