Pretty hate machine

(Image: IDGNS)

10 February 2017

Last year I wrote about Twitter’s struggle to remain viable as both a commercial entity and a marketplace of ideas. At the time the social network’s third quarter results had just been released and they made for bleak reading. The company was shipping losses of more than $100 million, wasn’t seeing any user growth to speak of and a culture of trolling where every conversation veers towards outrage or ad hominem attack had become the norm. The place had a lovely user interface, but it was a cesspit.

Plan A for Twitter to get itself out of its financial hole was to sell itself but Salesforce, Alphabet and Disney respectfully declined. Plan B, I guess, is to tough it out and hope new anti-trolling measures will put a lid on the hate speech and entice new users.

Well the fourth quarter results are out and they are much as you would expect: a loss of $167 million (versus $90 million in the same quarter last year), a meagre 4% increase in the user base to 396 million active users, and  despite annual revenue riding 14% to $2.5 billion, the company is in debt to the tunr of $2.8 billion.

But what about the so-called ‘Trump Effect’ created by the most powerful man on Earth’s compulsive posting? Heck, his every tweet is reported on ad-nauseam in the dreaded mainstream media, surely people are signing up to see it happen in real time? Well it turns out when your most famous user’s followers are a combination of bots, xenophobes, rubberneckers and political opponents advertisers aren’t too keen to get involved. Besides, you get the highlights at the end of the day. Who wants those kind of rolling updates?

So does Twitter have anything good to report since we last checked in? Well, it has annuonced out a trio of measures in an attempt to protect its users. Let’s have a look.

First up, the service will start shutting down accounts set up by already suspended users. Secondly, content from blocked or muted from a user’s timeline won’t show up in general searches – though they won’t be deleted or removed from common view. Third, Twitter will start identifying what it called “low-quality” tweets posted as replies, with more substantial replies brought higher up the chain of replies – presenting you with something worth interacting with over, say, a string of epithets from anonymous accounts (egg or anime icon, take your pick).

Will these measures put manners on the hive mind? If we know something about human ingenuity it’s that every preventative measure is temporary. Trolls are gonna troll and no matter what barrier Twitter puts in place, it will be eventually be circumvented. What’s more, if you main strategy is to make things harder to find if you don’t like them but still available for a general readership – it’s hardly an intimidating sanction.

Last month, CEO Jack Dorsey took to the service for an ‘ask me anything’ session where user could throw ideas at him and time and again the same points came up: editable tweets and no trolls. I have faith that we will see editable tweets in our lifetime. The trolls, however, are a human problem in need of a human solution. Good luck getting a technology company to embrace that lesson.

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