I probably spend too much time on Twitter. Part news feed, part sandbox, part freakishly effective ego stroker, it was seemingly designed for those who crave both simplicity and immediacy—Facebook without the hassles or intrusion. It will be pried from the cold, dead hands of many journalists.
Since its launch in 2006, Twitter has amassed some 315 million users thanks to its ability to instantaneously broadcast nibble-sized blasts of invective or praise to one’s followers. These users have an enviable demographic profile. They tend to be younger than Facebook users, better educated and better off than Instagrammers and are nearly three times in number than those of Pinterest. Twitter is for sale, and the buyer would have a ready-made universe populated by millions of Twitter addicts and their data.
Yet no one wants it. Both Google and Disney have balked at Twitter’s $3.5-billion price tag. The most recent tire kicker, California-based cloud computing giant Salesforce, made an offer but ultimately declined to follow through.
It isn’t only because the number of Twitter users has plateaued and even declined as of late, or because Twitter executives have largely failed in connecting eyeballs to advertising. Like many of its users, Twitter has a massive troll problem. As a recent Bloomberg piece about the potential sale to Disney put it, “bullying and other uncivil forms of communications on the social media site might soil [Disney’s] wholesome family image.”
Essentially, anonymous hate-spewers also populate that Twitter universe. This isn’t particularly revelatory to regular Twitter users, yet it seems this toxicity has poisoned the brand. In this sense, the 10-year-old digital media company faces a similar quandary as several legacy media properties: the issue of anonymity.
Ten years ago, web anonymity didn’t much matter for most media sites. In fact, it was quietly encouraged. For a long time, the comment sections of the CBC, Postmedia, The New York Times as well as Huffington Post and many others were akin to the wild west. You could identify yourself before posting a comment, but you didn’t have to.
It was a win-win situation at the time. It coaxed otherwise squeamish readers into the comment sections, bringing out new and previously unheard voices. For publishers, anonymous commenters were as good a commodity as those who put their names to their words.
That’s because commenters, anonymous or not, would click on a story and leave a comment, then return to the site to see if anyone responded. This exercise would repeat itself each time they’d leave another comment. Each visit amounts to a page view, meaning one user could account for multiple clicks.
More clicks meant more ad dollars, and more comments meant more text to feed into the search engine optimization machine. Suddenly stories became more valuable when commenters slagged on one another with abandon. Journalists, this one included, often judged a story’s worth by the number of people teeing off on the writer and one another.
Except the predictable happened. Unburdened by social codes and emboldened by their power to provoke, anonymous commenters abused and tormented at will, often turning comment sections into hateful sideshows.
In 2013, Huffington Post editors put an end to anonymous commenting on the site. A 2014 study analyzed 42 million user comments before and after the ban. Compelling users to identify themselves resulted in “sharply reduced commenting levels and improved user behavior.” (At Macleans.ca, commenters must register before posting.)
Most legitimate Twitter users identify themselves. Yet as a medium that has thrived on selective anonymity, it is all too vulnerable to the same type of abuse. Donald Trump has birthed a cottage industry of articles dedicated to his army of hateful Twitter trolls. One of its more prolific members is often featured in these stories as an example. He regularly incites violence, bemoans Jews, blacks, Mexicans and “white genocide.” And he has more than 13,000 followers. Prolific and relatively popular, this fellow would have been a boon for Twitter 10 years ago. Now he is a liability.
Twitter’s attempts to shut down anonymous trolls have been as slapdash as its advertising initiatives. It has remained hidebound to anonymity in an era of increasing disclosure; instead, it has engaged in a largely complaints-based enforcement strategy and created an oddly secretive “Trust and Safety Council” to foster “greater compassion and empathy on the Internet.”
The solution is staring us all in the face. Twitter should outright ban anonymous users, or at least severely restrict their ability to create such accounts. Sure, it will lose users. But their very presence makes a widely used, thoroughly addictive brand unpalatable.