I’ve been ranting about this on twitter for days, or years if you think about it, but thought it was time to collect some of these thoughts in one place. I purposely didn’t include punctuation in the title of this piece because it could just as easily be “How to save twitter!” as it could be “How to save twitter?” – in fact it might be both.
If you are reading this you likely know about @dickc, CEO of twitter, sending an internal note accepting that twitter is horrible at dealing with abuse and taking ownership of that problem. This of course is a problem that the rest of the world has known about, and has been discussing, for quite some time.
I’m not a twitter employee, investor or anything, so why do I even care? Because I love twitter, or at least I loved it, but it’s been bumming me out a lot recently.
As one of the first 140 people to sign up for twitter, I’ve seen almost every change the site has gone through first hand. Some of those changes were natural evolutions and just made sense – for example getting rid of the “All” feed which showed you every tweet by every user on twitter at once – eventually there were too many people posting too often for this to be useful at all. Similarly the addition of the “Replies” feed where you could see tweets by people talking directly to you rather than having to scroll through the feed comprised of lists of your friends or the aforementioned “All” feed to see if anyone had mentioned you. These were natural evolutions based on how people were using the site. The addition of “replies” changed everything, and overnight a jumbled string of comments turned into conversations you could follow. This little change has irreversibly changed how people communicate online. It’s impossible to downplay the importance of that.
The benefit of enabling conversations came with the side effect of bubbling up comments, or “replies” from people whom the recipient might not already be acquainted. This was a positive thing because it allowed anyone in the world to talk to anyone else, but it was also a negative because it allowed anyone in the world to talk to anyone else. The positive was more immediately apparent than the negative, but it wasn’t long before the negative was impossible to ignore. This was the start of a problem that was never effectively dealt with.
This is a lot of history but I’m getting to a point here so stick with me.
“Verified” accounts were introduced after St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa sued twitter after someone else set up an account in his name, the suit claiming twitter enabled this impersonation. Twitter denied responsibility sticking to their hands off “platform not publisher” approach to dealing with such complaints, but created “verified” accounts as a future solution – so that the public could tell the difference between real and parody accounts. At face value this seems like a viable solution. But it came with problems of it’s own (like new users assuming anyone not verified is fake), the largest however is twitter never publicly disclosed a set of standards or process for people to get their accounts verified. Worse, they quickly turned “Verified accounts” into a marketing product. Celebrities and high profile people who would give this new user class(* I’ll get to this in a minute) validity and value started popping up as twitter hand picked who to give these accounts too. Blue checkmarks became a hot commodity and it wasn’t long before business partners, read that as paying advertisers, ended up with verified accounts as well. As of this moment there are 121,215 verified accounts (of 288 million users) and a quick scan of that list shows lots of brands, and lots of people associated with those brands, not a lot of people at high risk for impersonation. I clicked 6 or 7 of the most recent names on that list at random and not one of them had over 1000 followers. Meanwhile a guy who was on the original team that built twitter, the guy who started #hashtags and people with tens of thousands of followers aren’t. Hell even current twitter employees who are followed by the CEO aren’t verified.
I think we can all agree “verified” has nothing to do with how high someone’s profile is, or if twitter is assured the person is who they claim to be. Just sayin’.
It’s pretty obvious that twitter has felt that brands and businesses are their primary customer for quite some time. Which might be true, but only because they’ve never offered a way for people to be customers as well. Giving people access to their ad platform which is 100% designed for businesses doesn’t really count. The mistake here is assuming that their primary customers were their primary users. Or even should be. Individual people far out number the brands on twitter, and this is a loyal resource that twitter has been taking for granted. So it’s no surprise that when all efforts are spent to attract brands, people get left behind. Brands don’t harass each other, when all focus is on how to make brands happy, is it any surprise ordinary people fell through the cracks?
I’ve ranted for years about my problems with this system and won’t go back over all those here, suffice to say “verified” implied confirmation of identity when it fact it should have been something like “twitter gold” or “premium.” The manufactured exclusivity made it valuable, but detracted from it’s value. If you know what I mean.
This is actually where I think they made the biggest mistake, and where they can correct it all pretty much overnight.
I mentioned earlier that verified accounts are a user class. This isn’t transparent. To the general public a verified account looks just like any other account with the addition of a blue checkmark. But behind the scenes verified accounts have access to additional tools and filters which are designed specifically to improve the experience. Not the least of which is the ability to ignore everything but other verified accounts. As you can imagine there is very little verified on verified harassment.
So here’s the roadmap:
1. Give up the exclusivity of “verified” and create a transparent process for anyone to prove they are who they say they are and get verified. This isn’t a “real name” policy, it’s a “I’m a real person attached to this account” policy. Essentially letting “verified” be what it was initially promised to be – a way for people to know if the account is actually run by who it says it is.
2. Step 1 in play gives anyone access to these enhanced filters if they want them. Web and mobile should have mirrored features. Right now anyone using the web interface can filter replies to only see messages from people they follow, but they don’t have this option in mobile. Giving everyone all filters on all platforms makes harassment infinitely easier to manage, block and ignore.
3. To compensate for lost revenue from brands by removing the exclusivity of “verified” twitter should introduce paid accounts. Maybe this is tied to the verification process, but web users are far more comfortable with paying for accounts in 2015 than they were in 2006 when twitter launched. We happily pay for accounts all over the web these days so the oft repeated argument that people won’t pay for accounts rings hollow. If verification cost $5 a month, or $20 a year I can’t imagine enough people wouldn’t jump on it to more than cover the difference. In fact, I’d bet this route is way more profitable.
Now this doesn’t solve everything, but it takes some massive steps in the right direction. I put up Dear Dick C (dot com) in hopes to bring some attention to this, it worked (sort of) when I tried it with Marissa, so I thought I’d give it a shot again.