Twitter-the-company, you maybe don't know it yet, but you are in a crisis. Your canaries are dying, people getting frantic to leave.— Erin Kissane (@kissane) October 11, 2014
I’ve been reflecting on this tweet from Erin Kissane for several weeks now. It’s a message I have seen echoed across Twitter, as the level of harassment people are experiencing, and the platform’s inability to control it, becomes unbearable.
The canary in the coal mine. I was reminded at a conference last year1 that it wasn’t the canary’s death that first signaled trouble, it was when the bird became restless, when it stopped singing. Silence was the warning that the mine wasn’t safe, that the air had become toxic.
It’s hard for me to describe the impact that Twitter has had on my life, because honestly, it sounds ridiculous. Since I signed up in 2008, I have met some of the kindest, most amazing people through this platform. I’ve been to weddings, baby showers, visited people in the hospital, met them for dinner in foreign countries, and for drinks just down the street. I’ve also had incredible opportunities (including writing for this project), that I simply don’t think would have been available to me if Twitter didn’t exist.
I honestly don’t know that I would be who I am today, if Twitter didn’t exist. I have been exposed to voices and ideas that I may not have found without this network, and through those connections, have been encouraged to share, to speak up, to find my own voice as well.
This all sounds very Utopian Ideal of the Internet, I know. And sure, you can make the argument that if Twitter didn’t exist, something else would have come along to take it’s place—maybe we’d all still be using Plurk or FriendFeed or Posterous, and this post would be about one of those networks. I don’t know.
What I do know, is that more than any other network I’ve used since the day I signed up for a LiveJournal in 2000, Twitter has facilitated serendipity and discovery. This was always easiest to see in contrast to Facebook; Facebook was the place for the people you already knew, but Twitter was the place for the people you wanted to know.
This wasn’t all built into Twitter-the-platform from day one, but through sites like Favrd, manual retweets, the occasional meetup, the snowball effect of following interesting people, then following the other interesting people they talked to, and sometimes working up the nerve to talk to those people myself, I ended up with a community. A community that has supported me and inspired me. A community that I continue to learn from every single day.
I question whether any of this is really possible today, though. If I hadn’t joined Twitter in 2008, but instead, tried to sign up in 2014, would I still be able to build the kind of community I have? Would I still be able to find the interesting people I’ve somehow connected with over the years? Or would I be steered toward people I already know, or celebrities and brands I might want to “engage” with?
Perhaps most importantly, will the people I’ve learned so much from still be willing to take the considerable heat that comes from simply talking in public about the experience of being a woman, a person of color, a part of the queer and trans community?
So many people are leaving, or thinking about leaving, or sharing less, because of the harassment that they receive. Because of the inability to do anything about it. Because Twitter makes it easier to report accounts as spam than to report them for abuse. Because we all fear the Koolaid point.
This is not an “online vs IRL” issue. It is not an “anonymity” issue. It is a societal issue. In a recent event at Eyebeam, Erin Kissane, Sydette Harry and Melissa Gira Grant spoke to this much more eloquently and knowledgeably than I can. Listen to them. As Harry says, “Online harassment happens because offline harassment happens.” Period.
So, what can we possibly do? How can we make the internet safer for women, for people of color, for trans and queer people, when we can’t seem to do much to make the world safer for them either? I wish I had answers. I wish I had a 10 step plan. I don’t.
I do know that we, as an industry, have been far too willing to accept the status quo, to go along with the notion that for some, this is simply the price of admission for public participation on the web. That assumption is, to borrow a phrase from Dr. Paul Farmer, a failure of imagination. I have to believe that we can do better.
When we talk about platforms, about social networks, we often focus primarily on the technology. Yet in my time as a community manager, I have found that community is rarely about the technology itself—a platform is nothing without the people who use it. And right now, we are losing people. We are losing people who have wisdom and insight and so much to share, because public participation on the web has become increasingly more dangerous.
The impact of this cannot be understated. These are people who inspire, who change minds and change hearts and encourage others to join, to contribute, to do more and do better. When these people begin to fall silent, it’s a warning to us all that the air is becoming too toxic to breathe. Networks can be more fragile things than we realize—once you lose too many people, things fall apart and the center cannot hold.
Twitter has given me so many incredible opportunities, and I have learned so much from people that I may never have found otherwise. I don’t know if Twitter is fixable, and perhaps the nature of the web means we’ll all be someplace else a few years from now anyway. But I do know that if we can’t figure out how to build safer networks, platforms that take these issues seriously from day one, spaces that are willing to challenge the assumption that this is simply how things have to be, we’re all going to be a hell of a lot worse off for it.
1. This whole video is great, particularly if you’re interested in health care, but the bit about canaries comes in at 45:12.↩