For those still unsatisfied with the current state of affairs at Twitter – particularly conservatives incensed at shadowbanning and all the rest of its issues – Alex Griswold has a fascinating essay at the Free Beacon this week. Titled, “You Can’t ‘Fix’ Twitter Without Breaking Twitter,” Griswold argues that the fundamental design of such a social media platform has inherent limitations on what you can expect from it. Twitter can give you most of what you probably want out of such a social engagement tool, but not everything.
I find myself agreeing with his starting point, if not all of his conclusions. The author does an excellent job in quantifying the three things you may want most from Twitter but correctly points out that the nature of the beast means you can probably only ever have two of them simultaneously.
There are three separate things the larger Twitter user base demands from the company:
– the ability to send messages out to the entire world
– the ability to interact with fellow users
– the ability to send messages without the fear of toxic responses
The problem is it’s basically impossible to guarantee all three at once. Call it the “Twitter impossibility theorem,” to ape Kenneth Arrow. You can have an open Twitter, you can have an interactive Twitter, and you can have a troll-free Twitter, but it is basically impossible to have all three. One of the demands must be dropped.
That much is true. Twitter comes with certain tools and features which allow you to customize your experience. In default mode, you can broadcast to anyone who comes across your tweets and try to build an increasingly large audience to participate in and even influence the national (or global) discussion. Doing so will provide you with plenty of interaction, but a lot of it won’t be positive.
If you want to limit the “toxic responses” you can do that as well. Set your status to private and only engage with those you choose to chat with. The trolls are gone, but so too is your opportunity to grow your audience and broadly engage. Or, you can broadcast to everyone but simply block off all responses. Then you have the (possible) reach and not trolls, but you lose the broad interaction entirely.
We’ve already seen what happens when we demand that Twitter eliminate the “toxic responses.” That puts them in the position of not only policing but defining what qualifies as “hate speech.” And if you’re a conservative you’re going to get hit with the ban hammer at a vastly higher frequency than liberals.
So what do we do? While I doubt most will go along with it, the only pure answer to this conundrum is to ask Jack Dorsey to do what he should have been doing all along. That is… almost nothing. Twitter should be monitoring for and responding to reports of actual criminal activity, death threats, child trafficking and such. Those accounts should be reported to law enforcement and could be suspended while a legal investigation takes place. But beyond that, it should never have been Twitter’s job (or that of Facebook, Reddit, Instagram or the rest) to act as our hall monitor.
As I’ve said here before, Twitter is basically a dormitory corkboard, only expanded to a global scale. When somebody posts something nasty (but not illegal) on it, that’s entirely the fault of the person who posted it, not the manufacturer of the corkboard. If you can’t handle seeing unpleasant comments, don’t look at the board. This analogy works on a few levels because the real arbiters of social media “success” should be the user community. You can’t tear the notes down off the board, but if enough users ignore, block or mute the trolls, they will wither. The only reason they gain any serious traction is that one side or the other actually wants them to troll their adversaries.
In that sense, Twitter is precisely what we make of it, for better or worse. It’s not Jack’s fault if despicable cretins open up accounts and begin spewing filth. He just put the corkboard up on the wall. When we asked Jack to step in and “fix” the “hate speech” problem we handed him the keys to censor free speech. The results speak for themselves. So there was never really any need to “fix” Twitter or risk “breaking” it. The platform works pretty well for all intents and purposes. The only thing that’s broken is the user base.