Full disclosure: My husband works for Twitter, although not in a department that deals with this kind of thing. I know this because whenever I come to him with something I’d like him to “tell his friends at Twitter about”, he looks at me like I’ve put my clothes on inside out. Which, to be honest, is always a possibility.
Twitter is in trouble. I know this because I’ve seen our stock value plunge to about a third of what it was when my husband joined the company. Also because I don’t live under a rock. Obviously Twitter needs to grow its user base. And it needs to find ways to improve the user experience, make it more rewarding and more responsive. But there is another problem that is getting a lot of attention right now, one that if handled the wrong way, has the potential to sink the company: Finding the right balance between free expression and protecting users from abuse.
Of course the way I just framed that problem is idiotic. Because there is no “right balance”. There is no single solution that will please everyone or be right for everyone. Why? Because everyone is different. All of Twitter’s users are different - they have different tastes, different interests, different capabilities, different levels of tolerance for words and ideas that are different from their own... and different thresholds for being offended.
The dilemma is this: How does Twitter satisfy its users’ desire for free and open communication (kind of its core business), while also protecting its users from having their feelings hurt so badly that they no longer want to engage or be in the Twitter verse?
To imagine that there is one solution that will be right for everyone - or that can be imposed upon everyone whether it is right for them or not - is to think like a politician. Politicians are in the business of forcing solutions on people. They are in the business of deciding whether everyone gets chocolate or everyone gets vanilla. They are not in the business of meeting people’s needs - not really - because they don’t have to be. Politicians and the people who work for them are going to go on making money whether their constituents are happy or not, because they simply take the money. Nobody has a choice about funding the political business model, because that model is based on force. But advertisers do have a choice about advertising on Twitter, and users do have a choice about whether they engage on Twitter, and because of this Twitter cannot afford to think like a politician.
So here’s what Twitter needs to do. And now that I write it down, I realize how obvious it is and am certain that someone at Twitter has already thought this through and that they are well on their way to implementing it. So good. Everything’s going to be fine then. But here it is just in case:
Twitter needs to have different “modes” of interaction, based on the sensitivities of its users. There should be an “anything goes” mode, in which all speech is tolerated (excepting of course speech that is clearly illegal, including death threats, etc.) At the other end of the spectrum should be a “kittens and rainbows” mode. This would be the ultimate “safe space” - perhaps even safe enough for children. And in between, one or two other modes suitable for adults but with an understanding that only respectful, non-offensive communication will be tolerated.
There would be one “default” mode - probably, “anything goes” but with some prohibitions on what most people consider to be “hate speech”, etc. People who want more “protection” can select to only participate in one of the “safe space” modes. (Perhaps: “Safe”; “Safer”; “Safest”.) They will not see any posts from the less safe modes, and can choose whether or not their posts will appear to those in the other modes.
People for whom even the restrictions on “hate speech”, etc. are too stringent can choose the “anything goes” mode - but then they don’t get to complain about the content they see.
Obviously people would only be allowed to participate in a given “mode” if they follow that mode’s guidelines. Violators would be kicked back to the default mode for a period of time, or indefinitely, depending on the degree and frequency of the violation.
Markets are about providing choices. If Twitter decides to deprive all of its users of a venue for speaking in a way that offends some of them, then other platforms will move in and offer that choice, providing more open venues. But this doesn’t need to happen. This doesn’t have to be a dilemma for Twitter. The company does not have to decide whether all of its users get chocolate or whether they all get vanilla. It can allow users to choose their own flavors. And if it’s going to survive, it’s going to have to.