The Internet is having one of its periodic “Twitter is doomed” spasms, and this means that everyone and their sister has an idea of what Twitter should do in order to save itself. Well, this is what Twitter should do to save itself: Sell itself to Google, which will allow the company to do what it does well (be a place for people to yak about shit for 140 characters at a time) while Google does what it does (mine the shit out of the things people are tweeting in order to sell ads). Done and done.
What I’m more interested in is how Twitter can make itself better, which is a different question than how Twitter can be saved. Twitter’s major issue, as everyone except apparently Twitter’s C-bench knows, is that there are a bunch of shitheads on it who like to roll up to whomever they see as targets (often women and/or people in marginalized groups) and dogpile on them. That’s no good.
I get my own fair share of jerks trying to make my Twitter existence miserable, so over time I’ve developed some strategies to trim those down. The problem here is that they require me to be an expert Twitter user, and do things like use a Twitter client with more features than the native web/mobile interface, and also simply to make rules in terms of interaction that don’t involve Twitter at all (see: the Scamperbeasts Rule). It also requires me to have a certain level of “don’t give a fuck” attitude, which fortunately I have.
But then, I’m a well-off straight white dude, and I can laugh off some mouth breather saying stupid things to me. If I were a woman and getting a constant stream of rape and death threats, I’m not sure I could do that, and I’m not sure that I should be required to be an “expert” user not to have to see this stuff. More to the point, this shit exists on Twitter because the assholes know it’s hard to filter it out; they know their target has to see it first to block or mute it.
I think it’s fine if Twitter’s philosophy is that everyone, including complete shitbags, have a right to an account on the service. But I think it would be useful if Twitter also incorporated into its philosophy, far more robustly than it has, that everyone is allowed to decide who is allowed to impinge on their time, and timeline. There are things that Twitter can probably do, pretty easily, to both give their users control of their timelines and to make it clear to assholes that Twitter is not a great place for them to troll and threaten.
Now, as it happens, Randi Lee Harper (who knows from trolls on Twitter) has a long piece on what she would suggest to make this a reality, complete with estimations of the technical difficulty of making the changes, and she put it up here. I recommend you read it. I also have some thoughts, which I will detail below. Some of what I suggest will overlap with what she has to say; some will not.
So, if Twitter were asking me what I wanted out of Twitter to make it an optimal service for me, here’s what I would suggest, in no particular order:
1. Timed mutes. Before Twitter started being jerks to third party software, I used Janetter to read my timelines, and the thing I loved most about it was that you could specify how long you wanted to mute people, for times as little as 30 minutes to as long as forever. This was great because sometimes I had friends who’d go on a tweet-jag about something I didn’t care about, or one of the people I followed got into it with another and their back-and-forth jammed up my timeline, or just sometimes someone I usually liked exhausted me and I wanted to take a break from them for a week. Likewise, sometimes a random person would tweet something stupid at me and I didn’t want to see that tweet anymore but I didn’t want to exile them out of my timeline forever, because, well, we all say stupid things from time to time.
Neither Twitter’s main web/mobile interface or its Tweetdeck client allows timed mutes, which means I have to choose between muting someone (and then possibly forgetting I wanted to unmute them at some point) or putting up with their crap on my timeline. Timed mutes solve that problem.
2. Mutable phrases/hashtags in the web/mobile Twitter UI. Tweetdeck, which is owned by Twitter, allows you to mute words as well as accounts, and this is handy because most of the jackasses who try to troll me will “@” some account they look up to or want to impress, so by making that second account handle a mutable phrase, I substantially cut down on the amount of stupid I have to see. Having that in the main UI, both on the Web and on mobile, would be super-useful.
3. Make mute/block lists native to Twitter and shareable across clients. I use the Tweetdeck client on mobile through the Web interface, which is horrible and has all sorts of “quirky” bugs. Why do I do it? Because my considerable “mute” list is stored on the Tweetdeck client and not by Twitter itself — which means anyone I’ve muted on Tweetdeck is not automatically muted on Twitter. I’d have to do it all again. I’ve got 1,500 accounts muted (so far). That’s a lot of work to duplicate. If Twitter stored the list and shared it with any clients I used (including its own), that would be fantastic.
4. Make mute/block lists easily shareable through Twitter between followers. I’ve muted 1,500 accounts, as noted above. It would be really useful for friends who don’t want to handcraft a mute list to be able to use mine as a starter. It would be even more useful if they could do it right through Twitter. Now, there are block lists out there right now but they do require you to export/import them in order to share them; as far as I know there’s no way to share mute lists. So making the latter sharable and having it all done in the client is the goal.
5. Robust filtering. Here are some things I would want to control for, in terms of whose responses to me I see in my replies timeline:
- Account start date: I’d specify that accounts less than two weeks old would not show up in my replies (unless I chose to follow/whitelist them).
- Account follower number: I’d specify that accounts with less than 100 users would not show up in my replies (unless I chose to follow/whitelist them).
- Account icon: I’d specify that accounts that haven’t switched their Twitter icon from the default egg icon would not show up in my replies (unless I chose to follow/whitelist them).
Control of just these three things, at those levels, would automatically get rid of probably 90% of all “sockpuppet” accounts, i.e., the supplementary Twitter accounts assholes make to make it look like there are more of them and/or to get around being blocked. It would commensurately likely reduce the number of people sockpuppeting because they would know there’s no point. The numbers above for the account start date and follower number are my own; I think Twitter should allow people to specify the numbers.
Other things to allow filtering of:
- Profile keywords: If I could filter out every single account that had “#GamerGate” in its profile text, as an example, my replies would have been a lot quieter in the last couple of years.
- Accounts based on who they follow: Right now I’m thinking of five Twitter accounts of people I think are basically real assholes. I suspect that if you are following all five of them, you are probably also an asshole, and I don’t want to hear from you. In this particular case I think it’d useful to have the filtering be fine-grained, as in, rather than just filtering everyone who followed one account, you’d filter them if they followed Account 1 AND Account 2 AND Account 3 (and so on). It would also be useful to be able to do this more than once, i.e., have more than one follower filter, because often it’s not just one group being annoying.
6. Muting in Notifications and Direct Messages. If you mute someone, you don’t see them in your reply thread. But! As Twitter itself notes: “@ replies and mentions by the muted account will still appear in your Notifications tab,” and “Muting an account does not impact the account’s ability to send you a Direct Message.” It seems to me that if you’ve muted someone, you don’t want to see them. So users should at least have the option to extend muting to notifications and direct messages.
7. The ability to see only replies/notifications from those you follow/whitelist. Twitter kinda does this via private accounts, where the only people who can follow you are those you approve, so the replies will be from those folks. But that’s an ass-backwards way of doing it. Much simpler just to have a “Followers Only” option, either for the tweetstream in general, or for individual tweets (or both! Why not both!). Twitter already does something like this; verified accounts have the option of seeing only the replies/notifications from other verified accounts.
Notice that none of this so far requires Twitter to penalize or punish the accounts being muted or blocked, so mewling cries of “censorship!” can be easily ignored. Leaving aside that Twitter is not the government and as a private entity is allowed to say who may and may not speak on its service (and has a user policy that spells this out in any event), nothing above stops anyone from saying whatever they want on Twitter. It merely means that others are not obliged to listen. No one is guaranteed an audience.
Does this mean that I think Twitter shouldn’t boot and/or report accounts that threaten other users, or use the steps above to ignore or minimize threats of violence? Nope! I think that incorporating the things above will make Twitter less attractive to assholes in a general sense, and that’d be great, but that doesn’t mean that it will stop them completely. More to the point, it’s entirely possible that it’s not safe for some folks to ignore the messages assholes send them. As I’ve noted above, muting really solves a lot of problems for me, but then again, people don’t actively go out of their way to threaten me with rape or death. Not everyone has that luxury.
So for the people who have more to worry about than I do, but also want to have their general timestreams not filled with assholes spewing hate:
8. An optional tab where muted/blocked account replies can go. Wait, if you’ve muted/blocked someone, don’t you not want to see them? Indeed, you don’t! Or at the very least you don’t want to see them in the stream of daily conversation. But if you worry that there will be substantive threats to you among those accounts you’ve muted/blocked, then it’d be useful to have a quarantined area where you can see them and report the worst of them to Twitter. And that Twitter actually did something about them, with respect to their presence on the service, and when necessary (and agreed to by the person being threatened) in reporting the threatening accounts to appropriate authorities.
So these are the things I want out of Twitter, and not, say, tweets being longer. Note that I think having tweets be more than 140 characters will really mess with the character of Twitter and will make it into a second-rate Facebook. We already have a second-rate Facebook, called Facebook. Rather than potentially doing silly things like that, just give users more control of their own timestreams. It’ll make Twitter better, and something that people will still want to be part of.