THE RUMOURS HAVE BEEN CIRCULATING FOR WEEKS, all driven by one pressing question: who will buy Twitter? For a time, some were certain the Disney Corporation was making a bid. More serious seemed to be the talks with Salesforce. Then someone mentioned Google, but that seemed to be more wishful thinking that anything of substance. Ultimately, it appears that they all fell through, or weren’t serious offers anyway.
Intriguing in all of this is that the millions of Twitter users want it to survive – just not in its present shape. The company is currently valued at $20 billion (U.S.), but its user growth has flatlined and Twitter itself is talking about its willingness to sell. Sales have been off and some of its recent efforts at rebranding itself have proved lackluster at best. CEO, Jack Dorsey, has been able to reverse the company’s fortunes after a year of dedicated effort.
Underlying all of this has been the disenchantment with Twitter’s abuse policy. When the company launched, Dorsey believed that his policy of little to no censorship would create a vast open space of dialogue with a 140-character limit that would self-discipline itself and lead to a new way of civic engagement. It’s now apparent that his outlook was naïve – the weeds overgrew the garden. Abuse has run rampant. Stalkers and trolls have raged unfiltered and unguarded. Women have been shamelessly attacked and society contains more shadows than perhaps Dorsey or the rest of us figured.
And yet for those of us still using Twitter, there remains something of the innovative in it. It’s at its best when users openly, and respectfully, debate, cajole, inform, and perhaps even persuade. Yet our disenchantment over the last few years came with the realization that the worst of human nature was slowly creeping up and choking our more noble aspirations. When Dorsey refused to censor the abuse, users just started opting out of discussions because of the inevitable attacks from people only out to muckrake and never refine. Sadly, Twitter didn’t have our backs when the going got rough.
Technology correspondent Nick Bilson was asked what he thought about this last week and his insights more or less nailed it:
“I truly do believe that one of the reasons the company’s future is so uncertain is because Twitter is too nasty, or in some instances, too dangerous … I think if the company banned everyone who was mean on the platform, their numbers would vanish, the stock would fall even more, there’d be cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria! I mean this sincerely, but it’s really sad what happened to the service. I barely ever use it anymore, and precisely because—to quote Louis C.K. when he quit Twitter —it just doesn’t make me feel good.”
Ultimately, for the democratic experiment, this is tragic. When Bilson is forced to conclude that, “I think, at the end of the day, that the grand experiment of everyone in the world having the opportunity to converse in the same chat room didn’t work out so well,” there’s something in his words that we can all identify with – the worst of us ruined the opportunity for the rest of us.
Do we want Twitter gone because of its idealistic view of human interaction? Hardly. But it would be good to see it improved. And since the present leadership remains willing provide cover for the illegitimate attackers, it’s time for something new and different that can still build on the strengths Twitter continues to maintains and develop. For that to happen there must be the selling of the company to new visionaries who understand intrinsically that you can’t successfully sell a social app that isn’t social.
Twitter was an experiment on how we would be together, and it hasn’t ended up pretty. It’s not just the company that failed; we too failed to have one another’s backs and opted for a kind of remote involvement instead. Twitter users have looked in the mirror and, for many of them, they haven’t liked what they have seen. But it is too useful a resource of citizen-to-citizen democracy to be tossed aside because of its willingness to harbour abuse. We can only hope that some civically responsible company will buy it and turn it to the better angels of our collective nature.