After initially refusing to take action against notorious conspiracy monger Alex Jones—even after virtually every major platform had removed him for publishing hate speech—Twitter seemed to reluctantly admit that it had a problem, and put Jones in “Twitter jail” by suspending his account for seven days. Now, in a wide-ranging interview with the Washington Post, part-time CEO Jack Dorsey has promised to look closely at ways to solve Twitter’s troll problem, up to and including changing some of the “incentives” that are built into the social network and the way it rewards users for certain kinds of behavior.
Dorsey’s promises might seem like a magnanimous gesture, a kind of “we will stop at nothing” declaration of purpose. But for anyone who has paid attention to Twitter for more than a nanosecond, there are a couple of significant issues with what the Twitter CEO said. For example, the Post notes that “Dorsey said Twitter hasn’t changed its incentives, which were originally designed to nudge people to interact and keep them engaged, in the 12 years since Twitter was founded.”
In other words, only now, more than a decade after Twitter was founded, is Dorsey finally willing to take a hard look at some of the potential negative effects of the technology he and his company created, years after those problems were first brought to their attention. What took so long? The most obvious answer, as with Facebook’s deliberate attempt to ignore similar problems, is that avoiding or side-stepping those negative aspects was far more lucrative than trying to solve them—harassment and flame wars and misinformation are also known as engagement.
But that’s only part of the problem with Dorsey’s mea culpa. The second statement in the interview that should set off warning bells is when the Post says the Twitter CEO is thinking about “redesigning key elements of the social network, including the like button and the way Twitter displays users’ follower counts,” because they no longer reflect what the social network wants people to do.
All that’s necessary, Dorsey appears to be saying, is a few tweaks to Twitter’s design interface—maybe highlight some things in a different typeface, make a button a little larger or give it a different name—and boom! Problem solved. It’s like seeing racism and homophobia and other forms of harassment as byproducts of a poorly designed user interface, or some kind of bug in the software, and believing that if we could just do enough A/B testing, we could solve it once and for all.
The reality is that Twitter’s problems (and Facebook’s, and Instagram’s, and even Pinterest’s) are not flaws in programming, or reactions to design incentives, they are the result of deep-seated social, cultural, and psychological issues, some of which have been around for hundreds—if not thousands—of years. The walls of the ancient ruins in Pompeii are covered in political graffiti that could have been taken directly from Twitter (“All the deadbeats vote for Thucydides”).
The idea that a tweak in how the network prioritizes retweets or labels favorites is going to alter that kind of behavior is absurd, especially coming from Twitter, which seems to have spent a majority of its time as a company almost completely in the dark about how or why people use it.
It may even be the case, as John Herrman argues in The New York Times, that Twitter is simply too large to function in the way it wants to, as a kind of town square where ideas compete with one another and everyone’s speech has exactly the same weight as everyone else’s. It’s possible that human beings aren’t designed to work properly in a “community” that consists of 350 million people. But regardless of whether the problem is unsolvable or not, the idea that Twitter can do so by turning a few software dials is nonsense on stilts.