Money talks, too.

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Twitter's Harassment Problem Is Just Business

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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“Twitter's new feature shows how little it cares about harassment,” declares the headline of Kelsey McKinney’s latest article. What is this feature that broadcasts Twitter’s alleged indifference to virtual vilification? It's going to make it easier for anyone to send users direct messages, even if they don't follow you. Direct messaging is a useful feature for journalists, and presumably others seeking information from strangers … and, of course, for advertisers, politicians and others looking for a digital alternative to direct mail.

However, it will also add a new tool to the kit of certain online pests:

To see a company with such extreme and prevalent harassment problems greenlighting projects that have nothing to do with fixing its toxic environment is frustrating.

My faith in Twitter as a company that can or will even try to protect me from abuse has dwindled. If anything, all this "update" does is remind users who have been abused that they are not, and will not be, a priority.

So why is Twitter doing this? Let me see if I can explain.

First, let’s get the obligatory disclaimers out of the way. I think online harassment is terrible, and I have been a victim of it. In fact, I’m so old that I was a victim of vicious online harassment before there was Twitter. I have often been told I should die and heard fervent wishes that I should live while a loved one is killed in my place. I’ve also heard many of the quasi-threatening missives favored by less courageous trolls, which begin “I know where you live” and proceed to lengthy meditations on what a pity it would be if someone broke into my house and proceeded to commit the sort of violent mayhem that the writer is not quite brave enough to commit themselves. I won’t even begin to catalog the unfavorable comments on my appearance and general desirability, because you probably don't have the rest of the day to read this column.

So I get the problem, I really do. But to talk realistically about solutions, we can’t just talk about Twitter as if it were some sort of collective social institution. We need to talk about it as a company -- one that will need to (eventually) make some money if it is going to survive.

People writing about Twitter’s harassment problem -- and demanding that Twitter do more to fix it -- frequently mention that it is worth billions and has strong revenue growth. But there’s a word you’ll rarely see: profit. And that’s because Twitter hasn’t yet shown one.

To become profitable, Twitter needs to do one of two things: Grow its active user base, or grow the revenue it generates from each user. It’s doing pretty well at the latter, but since its initial public offering, user growth has been disappointing. And to justify its billions of dollars' worth of market capitalization, the company is probably going to need to do more than just generate more ad dollars per user; it probably needs more users, too. Social media is a space that is heavily dependent on network effects, which means that the best way to ensure your company’s future is to pile up a lot of users. So that’s what a lot of Twitter’s most controversial changes are aimed at: improving the experience for new users. 

Consider this quite smart list of things that Twitter could do to make it easier for victims to fight online harassment.  Mostly they focus on blocking people -- and because one of the favorite tricks of trolls is to evade bans by instantly creating new accounts and resuming where they left off, it’s particularly focused on making it easier to blanket-ban new users or those with low follower counts. This is a frequent suggestion from people who want to fight online harassment, and if that’s all you’re focused on, it makes perfect sense.

But you can see how this would be problematic from the point of view of a company that is trying to grow its user base. It’s problematic even for companies that are just trying to keep their user base the same size, because, of course, Twitter suffers attrition over time. As old users drop off, it needs to add new ones just to keep running in place.

The proposed actions would make things much better for established folks with sizable followings. On the other hand, it would erode the appeal for new users who don’t have sizable followings, because a lot of the more famous folks they want to follow and talk to would have blanket-banned them -- not because they did something wrong, but because other people who superficially resemble them did. And that, in turn, would probably make them more likely to drop out, not turn into engaged users whose eyeballs can then be sold to advertisers.

People tend to define the trade-offs Twitter is making as between spending money on people and technology to fight online abuse, or doing something else with it, such as give it to shareholders or build fancy offices. But I doubt the issue is money, because Twitter is still sitting on a pretty big pile of cash. Looking at what it has done -- and what it hasn't -- it seems to me that the company is struggling with a different problem entirely. The most precise tool it has for dealing with abuse -- banning people who have been caught in flagrantly indecent behavior -- is not very effective given the speed at which Twitter mobs assemble and attack. Less precise tools would be more effective, but they would also be vulnerable to abuse themselves (reporting people who aren’t actually committing doing anything wrong) and/or cost it users.

We shouldn’t have to face a trade-off between having a decent online community and having Twitter be an economic success. But life is full of trade-offs. Online communities have been struggling to solve the problem of abusive behavior for decades, and no one has come up with anything that consistently allows a system to be a) open to the public, b) anonymous, or at least pseudonymous, and c) civil. These three desirable features seem to be impossible to assemble in one package. Which is why so many websites have shut down their comments sections.

I’m not saying that Twitter couldn’t do better. What I’m saying is that “Twitter doesn’t care about my problem” is the wrong way to frame the issue. Twitter cares about lots of problems, including the problem of becoming a sustainable business. And because all the rest is moot unless it solves that one problem, any solutions we propose should give that issue due weight.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net