"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Woe be unto the tech company or platform that rolls out a new product or update and claims that it is in response to its users’ demands. For such action shall be met with the gnashing of teeth, the furrowing of brows, the rolling of eyes, and the saying of “that’s not what we asked for.” Yet, blessed is the tech company or platform that openly does not give a damn what its users want for, at least it is being honest. Granted, in either case, the company knows that its kingdom of power and glory comes from the fact that as much as users may grouse and grumble, the truth is that most of them aren’t going anywhere.
A clear example of this can be seen in Twitter’s latest update: a raft of largely cosmetic tweaks that at best do barely anything, and at worst do absolutely nothing, to respond to demands coming from the platform’s users. Of course, to the contrary, Twitter insists that the new changes are thanks to “lots of feedback and ideas from” its users – though it seems hard to imagine many people taking the time to argue for such banal changes. Having previously switched the “star” favorite to the “heart” favorite, and having done away with its infamous anonymous “egg” avatars in favor of a non-descript humanoid silhouette – Twitter has now taken the dramatic step of making the profile images round instead of square. The “edit tweet” button that many users have asked for remains nowhere to be seen. And it seems that Twitter has responded to the rising chorus of concern about the ways in which the far-right are turning the site into a beer hall for reactionary recruitment, and haven for xenophobic harassment, by getting rid of the right angles that used to box in profile avatars.
These two concerns are (obviously) quite different, and thus should be considered separately.
Legion are the users of Twitter who have at one point or another hit the “Tweet” button only to realize that they phrased something poorly, or that they made a spelling mistake. Clearly, the option remains to delete the problematic tweet and send a new one (and deleting tweets is a common occurrence), but doing so may make one’s followers feel an odd sense of déjà vu – to say nothing of the likes/retweets that will suddenly vanish (how horrid) if one deletes the original.
Though the “edit” button may be a feature that many users are clamoring for, it’s easier to understand why such a button does not exist: for some of Twitter’s charm (insofar as it has any) derives from the lack of such an option. For an example of this, look no further than the, now infamous, covfefe tweet. That tweet would have been much more mundane had its author simply been able to go back and edit it into its appropriate shape.
Indeed, the larger and more significant concern raised by users, if one turns from “Twitter is what’s happening!” to “what’s happening on Twitter?”, has a lot to do with the way in which Twitter has become a haven for hate. It’s challenging to find many cases of users asking Twitter to make the avatar images round, but there are plenty of Twitter users who’ve been noting that the social network has something of a Nazi problem. To which Twitter has responded, by choosing not to respond.
To defend itself Twitter, and its more ardent defenders, have jumped to the “free speech” defense – but there is something patently absurd about a site that is based on the principle of limiting speech to 140 character bursts, trying to stand tall as an advocate for “free speech.” Furthermore, the regularity with which individuals find their accounts locked or find themselves booted from the site for unclear breaches of the terms of service further casts doubt on the idea that Twitter is some sort of utopia for free speech. In regards to social media platforms it cannot be said loudly or often enough that there is no such thing as free speech in these spaces, there is only “the type of speech that the platform allows insofar as they are in keeping with the user agreement.” That’s it. There is no free speech on Facebook, only Facebook speech; there is no free speech on Twitter, only Twitter speech. Any attempts to make free-speech absolutist arguments in regards to social media platforms are fundamentally flawed, as these platforms have never (and will never) represent a space of genuine free speech. Or to put this more clearly: the principle of free speech isn’t what lets Nazis harass people on Twitter, Twitter is what allows that to happen.
In fairness, Twitter finds itself in something of a bind here (one that is somewhat similar to the situation of Facebook’s legion of moderators), and for Twitter it is one that is largely linked to the fact that Twitter is the preferred medium of the far-right’s “god emperor” (which is not to say that this would be Caesar is himself a true member of the far-right). You can rest assured that Twitter is not going to begin implementing any sort of policy on xenophobic speech that might eventually be used by some groups to argue that Twitter needs to ban Trump’s account. Instead, when confronted with its Nazi problem, Twitter can simply tell users to make use of the “block” option, a move by which Twitter is able to dodge the implication that it might have some responsibility for the types of things that are being said on the site. That this problem persists, and that users continue to alert Twitter about it, is a rather clear signal that simply blocking the problem isn’t achieving much.
The significant thing to note here is that Twitter ignores its Nazi problem, not because it hopes that the Nazis will go away…but because it knows that it can ignore this problem without facing any actual consequences. For Twitter, like other influential tech platforms, knows that its users aren’t going anywhere.
At last we return to the original question regarding the changes that users would like to see versus those that sites actually implement.
Scarcely a month goes by without there being some smattering of excited news stories about the social network that will replace Facebook, the search engine that will replace Google, the photo sharing app that will supplant Snapchat, or the platform that will fly away with all of Twitter’s users. And yet, within a few months, people scarcely remember the names of these would be Goliath slayers. The fairly obvious conclusion, is that these Goliath-sized platforms have become monopolies and have figured out how to swat away any would be rivals before they can get too dangerous – they have amassed a significant enough glut of users that they continue trudging along thanks to the social and technological momentum that they have built up. A new rival may start with a burst of rebellious and righteous energy, but the overpowering momentum of the larger companies wins the day.
As a result, these companies need not respond to their users’ demands as they recognize that those users aren’t actually going anywhere. Largely because there isn’t an anywhere to go to (if one wants to stay online). Those who find their Twitter account locked or deleted return shortly after with either a new account or the old one restored – shaking a digital fist at the site in righteous fury while continuing to dump data into the site’s algorithms and providing eyeballs that can be sold to advertisers. And the user request for Twitter to do something about its Nazi problem ultimately goes nowhere as it isn’t linked to a sort of action campaign that can seriously hurt the site. If users began a mass boycott, began deleting their own accounts en masse, or began targeting advertisers – those might solicit a response. Yet it’s imperative to note that if Twitter responded to that, it wouldn’t be reacting to user demands but to financial ones.
Thus, Twitter continues to provide a synechdochic example of Joseph Weizenbaum’s wry comment that:
“the Internet is a big garbage dump – admittedly with some pearls in it, but you have to find them first.” (44)
Twitter knows that it is “a big garbage dump” and it knows that there are dangerous, vicious things that can multiply in such spaces if they are allowed to – things which can bite people, or chase people away. But Twitter seems content not to do anything about it, because it may be “a big garbage dump” but it’s still a profitable one, and it’s still filled with lots of scavengers hoping to find some pearls amidst all of the noxious rubbish. There is nothing inherently wrong with using a given social media platform, and there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to get the business (and it is a business) to respond to serious concerns, but it’s also quite obvious that these companies don’t really care about their user’s concerns. To still believe they do so speaks of wishful thinking bordering on naiveté.
Yes, Twitter has many serious problems. But those problems are called Twitter.
Joseph Weizenbaum with Gunna Wendt. Islands in the Cyberstream. Sacramento: Litwin Books, 2015.