Twitter has announced a series of changes to its platform that the company says will make it “safer for everyone.”
One of today’s changes updates how Twitter identifies abusive content on its own, without any reporting from other users. The company says that for users identified by an algorithm as engaging in abusive behavior, those accounts will automatically trigger a “time-out,” also known as Twitter jail, where they will not be able to post for a given period of time. This will likely deter some — though not all — abusers, and of course, the feature seems likely to backfire and timeout lots of people it shouldn’t. But it’s hard to say in advance how it will work without seeing it in action.
Twitter jail is not the biggest development of the day, however. The major front-facing change is an addition to the “muting” function already in place. To date, muting could only be used to silence specific users. Now Twitter will begin allowing users to issue blanket mutes. The most important one of those gives users the ability to mute “eggs,” or users who have not uploaded a Twitter avatar.
Twitter is a notoriously bad place for lots of people, with abuse, harassment, and hate speech often rampant. The company has been criticized, justifiably, for almost never moving quickly or consistently enough to clamp down on offenses. Part of the problem lies deep in Twitter’s DNA: The company historically wanted it to be a welcoming place for anonymous and pseudonymous users. As Facebook moved toward a real-name policy, Twitter chose not to. “Other services say you have to use your real name because they think they can monetize that better and get more information about you,” Dick Costolo, Twitter’s CEO at the time, said in 2011. "We’re not wedded to pseudonyms, we’re wedded to people being able to use the service as they see fit.”
“Twitter doesn’t care who you are, as long as you’ve got something to say,” Mat Honan wrote at Gizmodo.
Even now, new Twitter users do not need to verify a phone number or even email address in order to start using the service. Accounts are basically disposable if you want them to be. This is of course extremely valuable for people who want to anonymously organize or speak freely without having to do so in their own name. That’s part of the backbone of the web. So really, Twitter works the way it works by design.
But it would be foolish to pretend that most of the people using Twitter “anonymously” are doing so for important political purposes or some other lofty reason. Many, many eggs are there to troll. To cause trouble. To be annoying. While spammers now have figured out how to get their bots to upload fake avatars, trolls seem to like the egg look. And if you’re creating a small army of accounts to harass, say, a female game developer, it saves time not to have to pick out photos.
The perception that all eggs are trolls is incorrect, however. In fact, there are likely millions of earnest eggs: people who don’t know how or don’t care to upload an avatar. Twitter is famously confusing for new users. [Ed.: My mother was an egg for a year.] And that’s probably been one reason that Twitter has long failed to address the egg in the room: Avid users hate Twitter eggs, but they make up a massive part of the user base.
The ability to mute Twitter eggs, or accounts who haven’t verified with an email address or a phone number, is great because it puts the power into the hands of users, rather than simply banning accounts wholesale or forcing everyone to use verification tools. And while there are legitimate use cases for anonymous Twitter accounts, it’s also true that one of Twitter’s greatest weaknesses has long been how easy it is to make dozens of fake accounts.
For some of the most harassed users, it might be too little too late, but it’s also good to see Twitter finally throw the switch on what to many has long seemed to be a “no shit” solution.