There’s a new article on Slate, by Will Oremus, entitled “Verify, Then Trust”, subtitled “How Twitter could finally solve its abuse problem“. I think it completely misses its mark.
First, it references another Slate article by David Auerbach that … actually doesn’t suggest anything with identities or verification at all. Oremus suggests the Twitter problem could be solved one of two ways: the Auerbach way (which is a dramatic change, but a practical one focusing on the actual real problem), or the Oremus way (which naively equates anonymity with trolling, sticks its head in the sand, and ignores the root problems).
Auerbach points out (I believe quite validly) that part of Twitter’s problem is the need to try to show simple growth to shareholders, since going public with the company a few years ago. And this actually varies greatly from the goal of providing the best service, and a service of value to the user.
It has been argued that revenue for social sites comes from knowing who the user is. In “real life” (RL). I disagree. Money comes from providing the identity service, not for a specific identity, not from knowing real-life information. It comes from seeing that user Aardvark Alphabet was shopping on Amazon for cordless drills or whatever, then when Aardvark Alphabet later does a search for building supplies, or some other social activity such as posting a picture of something Aardvark has built, it can pull out ads for companies selling cordless drills and insert them into his search results or any other ads Aardvark is being presented with.
It doesn’t matter who he is, or who he has authenticated as, on other sites. The idea is to be the one to provide that service that allowed him to log in as Aardvark Alphabet in the first place, or any identity. But just to be his identity provider… i.e. to also be his intelligent, targeted ad provider. And that is just for the ad revenue part of this.
But more importantly, there are many many reasons for using an alternative online persona, and any policy that doesn’t recognize that is alienating a percentage of its users. Here’s the EFF summary explaining it: https://www.eff.org/issues/anonymity If you think online pseudonyms are a bad thing, read that first, it’s not long.
And here’s the Google policy that shows good insight on this as well — even though they too battled against their own policy with Google+ identities: https://publicpolicy.googleblog.com/2011/02/freedom-to-be-who-you-want-to-be.html
Now, like Google, the author of this article too was confused into falsely thinking anonymity had some correlation with online trolls; it does correlate, but inversely! Trolls are often worse under real-name policies. See this article discussing one such study: https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20160729/23305535110/study-trolls-are-even-worse-when-using-real-names.shtml
This paragraph in particular is almost frightening in its self-contradition:
“From Twitter’s perspective, my plan would probably run afoul of its noble, if arguably misguided, hard-line commitment to anonymity and freewheeling speech—all without fully solving the abuse problem. It’s true that there’s great public value in a platform that allows almost anyone to be heard, even if others would like them silenced. Twitter’s importance to political dissidents, for example, is underscored every time an autocratic regime tries to censor it or shut it down.”
I’m flabbergasted at that first sentence. I’ll take a closer look at it below. Andrea (Twitter user @puellavulnerata, who is a core developer for the Tor anonymity software) wrote:
“Please do explain, @WillOremus, what constitutes a ‘legitimate’ reason for pseudonymity and why you failed to notice that it isn’t pseudonymity anymore if you have to leak identifying details to prove you have one.”
If the content is not self-governed in some way by the users of the service, then Twitter has failed in its primary mission. There cannot be any kind of central authority choosing sides. As Andrea put it:
“Twitter has misconceptualized the problem as ‘good people’ vs. ‘trolls’ when it’s more like intercommunity conflict and so they’ve built tools which embed assumptions that everyone wants the same stuff filtered far more than is actually true. I don’t care about investor perception, I care about having a place to conduct my online social life that won’t get destroyed out from under me by some idiot fixation on legal identities and universalized norms of conduct. Hence, in the long run, we must kill centralized platforms like Twitter and build a replacement not dependent on investor whims.”
Whether we need to a replacement for Twitter or not, I’m not sure at this point. I do know that any real-name policy will kill Twitter. It runs contrary to its very fiber and I agree with Oremus above stating his own plan would effectively be a horrible idea: “From Twitter’s perspective, my plan would probably run afoul of its noble, if arguably misguided, hard-line commitment to anonymity and freewheeling speech—all without fully solving the abuse problem.”
To paraphase that: “My plan would ruin the very reason for Twitter’s existence, and wouldn’t actually solve the problem.” Ohhhh-kay. The cost-benefit trade-off is off the scale. So if they do that for the investors, good luck with that share price a year or two later.
I do agree with Oremus’ final two paragraphs. Twitter is different than Facebook and Google+, and needs to stay that way:
“Unfortunately, Twitter is not a public-benefit corporation. Since it decided to go public in 2013—a mistake, I believe, in retrospect—the company must answer to its shareholders, and they’ve made their top priority clear: growth. And not slow, steady growth, but rapid growth on a massive scale. They want Twitter to be more like Facebook.
“I’ve argued for years that Twitter is fundamentally different from Facebook, and we should all root for it to stay that way. Yet, for all its shortcomings as a venue for discussion, Facebook’s platform is far less conducive than Twitter’s to public abuse from unaccountable trolls. At this juncture, Twitter simply has to find a way to become a little less hostile. If it can do that, at the very least the company will become palatable to corporate suitors while better serving the majority of its users. At the same time, its data will become more valuable to advertisers. And beyond that, who knows: It might even start growing again.”
So why would a company want to be the identity service for a smaller portion of the population? Why can’t they learn from these same mistakes made by Google (e.g. Google+ and YouTube both) and others, and just let users choose how much personal information to reveal? Because they (blindly and falsely) think anonymity means trolls. So they go ahead and exclude a percentage of the world population that needs that social connectivity the most. And in addition to being a social crime against a subset of the population, it’s also not in their shareholders’ best interests. #fail
The good news is that this is just a proposal from someone writing for Slate. It’s not a good one, and it’s not a proposal from Twitter, so there’s no reason to believe Twitter would pay any attention to it. Let’s hope they stay the course on anonymity and the use of online pseudonym.