Ten years ago today, a brand new social network exploded into the public’s consciousness, attracting as much attention for its slick look and feel as it did utter confusion for what it was actually meant to be used for. Though the service was founded in March of 2006, it wasn't until this date in July of that year that it was properly launched.
I love reading this TechCrunch article from July 15th 2006. It paints a picture of a pure, innocent and utterly, utterly bland website few of us would be interested in today. Just look at the first ever tweet:
just setting up my twttr
— Jack (@jack) 21 March 2006
Fortunately, Twitter transformed dramatically over the following few years, establishing itself as a sort of information network, as opposed to a traditional social catch-up spot. It became less about humdrum, Facebook-style status updates and more of a place to make announcements, voice opinions and catch up on current affairs.
As such, it became infinitely more interesting. Somewhere along the way, however, it also became a minefield of contempt. Not even the most uplifting of trends is free from stomach-churning trolls.
Twitter’s long-standing problems with cyberbullies have been widely reported, and the company at least appears to be doing everything in its power to crack down on trouble-makers. The Twitter Trust and Safety Council was created earlier this year, and the site’s also rolled out mute, block and multiple tweet reporting features over recent months.
Furthermore, arrests have been carried out and examples have been made of people, not least when Paul Chambers cracked a pretty distasteful joke about blowing up Robin Hood Airport back in 2010.
Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!
Though it was an undeniably stupid post, it was also clearly a joke. Chambers learnt the hard way that the internet doesn’t have a ‘sarcasm’ button, and he won’t be doing anything of the sort again unless he fancies another drawn-out legal battle. The authorities came down hard on him, despite the fact that 90 per cent of professional troll Katie Hopkins’s updates are arguably more upsetting.
But what counts as an offensive tweet and what’s straight-up abusive? What warrants censorship and what should simply be brushed off and ignored? Twitter would argue that offensive users and updates can be blocked and avoided, even if they’re out to needle a large demographic, while abusive updates, which are usually focused on individual users, should be reported.
Either way, people are going to stumble across content that upsets them.
While the ability to block certain accounts is useful, you'll never be able to completely protect yourself. “Where once people might have been able to escape bullying at the end of the working day or school day, social networking means this abuse can continue when people are in the comfort of their own home, making it all the more traumatic and difficult to avoid,” said Tony Neate, the CEO of Get Safe Online. “There’s no doubt that more can be done, and by working together, raising awareness and consequently promoting the right advice, we can try and put a stop to it.”
That illustrates Twitter’s problem. The site’s unique selling point is that it’s a public arena where people are free to have their say and engage in debate, but the internet’s a rougher place than the real world. People say mean things online, things they’d think of but never actually voice in person because they know it would be rude.
It works the other way too, of course. There are a lot of people out there who are all too ready to call foul and find offence in absolutely anything they disagree with; last year’s Protein World debacle is a good case in point. The sad fact is, they’re making the situation even more unmanageable.
People take less care with the way in which they conduct themselves when they know they don’t have to face the consequences of their actions. Just like a bunch of mischievous children in a classroom governed by a hapless supply teacher, Twitter users know they can get away with a lot. The odd unfortunate soul will be caught out and strung up now and again, but it almost seems to be done at random.
Twitter's specific policy on hateful conduct states, "[y]ou may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others on the basis of these categories."
That's all well and good, but the site's sheer scale and dynamism make that completely unenforceable. Twitter referred me to a recent Guardian op-ed by Nick Pickles, the company's UK head of public policy, when I approached it about its battle against online trolls this week.
"The internet has become a real-time global mirror, reflecting society in a way that is not always comfortable to look at," it reads. "We never stop asking ourselves if a policy could be clearer or if new user behaviour means we need to change our rules, or the tools we employ to protect Twitter.
"Prejudice within society cannot be deleted at the click of a button – or by removing content to give the impression it does not exist. We can do more. We can empower people to take action, to speak up, to say that we will not stand by and allow prejudice to go unchallenged."
It's an honest insight, but one that plainly highlights the site's dilemmas. Hundreds of million of tweets are sent every day, and there’s no way of sifting through each and every one of them before they go live. In any case, the site’s perpetually dealing with grey areas, and if it was to employ hardline measures to clean its image up, it would also drive away huge numbers of its users.
Happy birthday Twitter, yours is an impossible task.