Earlier this week, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, was speaking at the Innovate Finance Global Summit when he raised a question that many people have been asking in a variety of forms over the past few years: is Twitter “actually a net good for the planet?”
Sir Berners-Lee recently penned an open letter detailing his three biggest fears for the future of the internet, highlighting how far the web had evolved from the initial “utopian” hopes that he and his fellow co-creators had held when designing the world wide web’s initial infrastructure.
“The assumption was, if we gave humanity an open space to play with, good things would happen,” said Sir Berners-Lee on Monday. “Last year, a lot of people did a re-think.”
His speech implied that the way the internet, and social networks in particular, impacted events like the US presidential elections and Brexit had caused him to reconsider his position. In fact, fake news and unregulated political advertising were two of the three key dangers he outlined in his open letter, alongside the loss of control of personal data.
Twitter in particular was held up as an area where abuse and organised harassment campaigns had flourished, and rumour, unsubstantiated news and full blown lies were able to profligate with little oversight. Sir Berners-Lee noted that “nasty ideas” seemed to spread much faster on social networks than positive messages, and suggested that “we need to re-think how we’ve built society on top of this web thing”.
The words of caution from one of the founding fathers of the internet comes as Twitter’s shareholders vote on whether or not the platform should be transformed into a co-operative, run not as a business but a general service, maintained by its entire user base.
The vote is almost certain to fail, with Twitter’s board of directors strongly opposing the plans, and has largely been held up as a symbol of shareholder dissatisfaction with how the company is being run, and the executive team’s failure to build a profitable business on top of Twitter’s influential position in the online world. However, perhaps we should consider its merits more carefully.
While Twitter’s rise, post-Facebook, meant that it was marketed as a ‘social network’, strip away the real-time elements and the short character limit, and it actually bears a resemblance to the message boards that proved popular in the late 90s and early 2000s, albeit with a universal scope. Users create their own communities of friends and acquaintances by following each other, then discuss what’s on their mind, from extremely niche topics to current events.
Like Twitter, message boards could create bubbles and echo chambers, and with members often identified by self-selected user names, there was a constant risk of people joining simply to abuse, mock or disrupt the otherwise functioning ecosystem of the board. What often distinguished a good message board from a poor one was the presence of moderators ensuring members conducted themselves politely, something that Twitter notably lacks.
Of course, most of those message boards were tiny affairs, with less than 1,000 members. Compared to Twitter’s scope, they were easily manageable and, more importantly, not run as a business. The platforms they operated on were free to use or existed as part of larger ecosystems like AOL or Yahoo, and if they were supported by advertising, it was usually limited to banner ads, rather than native posts or auto-playing video.
What does this have to do with operating Twitter as a co-operative? It’s commonly thought that Twitter’s proposed acquisition by Salesforce last year fell through because of its reputation for abuse and ‘trolls’, and the company’s executive team has admitted it has failed to react effectively in curtailing toxic user behaviour. Users are rarely banned from the platform following reports of abuse, creating an atmosphere that allows such behaviour to spread.
From a business perspective, it makes sense that Twitter is loathe to kick a whole bunch of users off its platform and close the door after them. After all, its dropping user growth was the reason investors began to feel nervous and explored a sale in the first place. Enforcing stricter abuse rules, as well as eliminating spam bots, could result in a significant drop in users and wouldn’t immediately result in new users flooding in. It’s hard to justify that sort of action to advertisers looking to reach as many consumers as possible, and shareholders who want the platform monetised as much as possible.
However, as a co-operative that didn’t have to worry about bottom lines thanks to the support of its own user base, Twitter would be free to sweep out the abusers, the trolls and everyone else making the online experience unpleasant for the vast majority of users. It could institute a more stringent code of acceptable behaviours, and stakeholder users would feel more justified in demanding action from a platform they actually owned.
A co-operative Twitter could be transformed into the social equivalent of Wikipedia – an online service maintained because it actually functioned as a force for good in the world. Twitter loves to trumpet its role in events like the Arab Spring and its power for delivering real-time reporting from people on the scene during crises and notable moments. If it wants to maintain that positive reputation, it needs to take substantial, and potentially radical, steps to address its dark side, even if it’s at the cost of its own business.