Back in mid-June 2009, two of Twitter's highest ranking executives, co-founder Biz Stone and board member Jason Goldman, sat in a small, nondescript office at the company's San Francisco headquarters and began drafting a blog post about a topic that ...
Back in mid-June 2009, two of Twitter’s highest ranking executives, co-founder Biz Stone and board member Jason Goldman, sat in a small, nondescript office at the company’s San Francisco headquarters and began drafting a blog post about a topic that they both realized was well beyond their comprehension: Iranian politics. By that point in its fledgling existence, Twitter was a three-year-old company experiencing the often peculiar exigencies of start-up life: the company, which had achieved widespread adulations at the 2007 SXSW conference as a “status” app that you might use to connect with friends at a rave or bar, had since grown into something else entirely, with a few expected pangs along the way. Twitter, which at the time was already on its third leader, had morphed into a company of some 60 employees, with tens of millions of users, including some of the most influential people on the planet. And while it had become a popular platform for entertainers and athletes (and, as of a few months earlier, a certain orange-hued reality star), Twitter’s utility was now changing once again. As the protests mounted in Tehran to remove president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, many Iranians were using the social-media service to communicate with one another and foment their peaceful uprising in the name of #ChangeforIran. Whether it liked it or not, Twitter had become a political tool.
Stone and Goldman were fully aware of this development. As the now-familiar story goes, a person at the State Department known internally as an “Iran watcher,” had noticed that Twitter was planning to take the site offline for scheduled maintenance during one of the most pivotal protests in the country’s history. Hillary Clinton’s senior staffers had been given the go-ahead to ask Twitter to delay the maintenance until after the protest. After a slew of phone calls and e-mails, executives at the fast-growing start-up subsequently agreed, and on this June day, Stone and Goldman sat down to publish a post announcing that they would postpone the update for a day or two. As I reported in my book, Hatching Twitter, when the two men sat down to actually compose the blog post, they looked at each other, mystified by the responsibility and the challenge that had been laid upon them. “We don’t know who the good guys are, or who the bad guys are,” Stone said to Goldman.
Almost a decade later, Twitter is still struggling to understand who the good guys are, and who the bad guys are, and how to deal with them accordingly. And, now more than ever, Twitter often finds itself forced into a position as the ultimate arbiter between what is right and wrong in countless debates, skirmishes, and worse—an uncomfortable role that was recently highlighted when Trump appeared to taunt Kim Jong Un on Twitter regarding the endowment of his nuclear button. Twitter’s centrality as the communications platform for these kinds of exchange is scary for obvious reasons, the most obvious of which is that Twitter, which disincentivizes nuance and patience and privacy, is where we increasingly talk about the most complex, intricate, and consequential topics. As the joke now goes, millions of people wake up each morning, log in to their Twitter accounts, and say to themselves, “Who are we going to be mad at today?” The end result is that the platform is a place where fascists go head to head with snowflakes, neocons fight with conservatives, feminists argue with other feminists, bots attempt to out-bot other bots, climate-change deniers troll scientists, and the leader of the free world can play nuclear-football chicken.
No one is equipped to decide the fate of the free world in 280 characters or less, and Twitter’s founders almost certainly did not want to have the responsibility of brokering these conversations. But it’s hard to see how we can avoid catastrophe if the company doesn’t somehow find a way to manage the conversation. And that’s why many were frustrated, earlier this month, when C.E.O. Jack Dorsey put his foot down on the idea that Twitter would ever ban Trump, or any other world leader, from Twitter, no matter how many rules or regulations they broke. “Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate,” the company explained in a blog post. “It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.”
Twitter is in an inarguably complicated spot, one that many of its earliest employees still can’t fathom it ended up in. On one hand, it’s a public company that has grown to 4,000 employees and $2.5 billion in revenue; on the other, many of its employees are truly trying to make the world a better place, which, in their eyes, may require placing zero limits on free speech, as was the case during the Iranian protests of 2009. This, and the fact that it continues to cycle through leadership changes, may explain why Twitter has been all over the place regarding how it manages volatile conversations. This latest blog post contradicted earlier company statements, which at first had few rules on the platform, then said that new rules would pertain to everyone on the platform. And yet the flip-flopping here isn’t as relevant as the decisions that have been made, which seem to be taking place in a dozen different vacuums, even though they all apply to the same person or concept, and leave users and the media perplexed as to how Twitter makes these decisions, especially when it refers to one person—Donald Trump—and not the other 299,999,999 users.
This isn’t an attack on Dorsey or Stone or Del Harvey, the company’s head of trust and safety, or the thousands of people who show up to work at Twitter each day. But here is one humble suggestion for them: If Trump gets to leverage the platform for his own political ends by beating on a different drum daily, then he should also be required to adhere to other democratic rules, too. For example, the president of the United States should not be allowed to block people who use the platform, something Trump repeatedly does to people who reply to him with commentary that he doesn’t like. (Trump is currently being sued by First Amendment lawyers for this precise thing.) Maybe, as some people have already pointed out on Twitter, the president shouldn’t be allowed to attack people by name (another tactless play that Trump takes from time to time) on the platform, as it incites vicious alt-right mobs to go after them. Would it be so difficult to take tweets from politicians and world leaders and put them into context regarding their accuracy? It’s really not arduous to add associated links with facts, or tell readers that a tweet is based on nonsense or real fake news. And, most importantly, don’t let the president re-tweet Russian bots (which Trump has done), re-tweet factually incorrect and intentionally hateful content (yes, he’s done that too), or allow him to dictatorially set his supporters on people, or specific reporters, when he doesn’t like what they’ve said about him.
In the long run, what happens to Twitter—assuming Trump doesn’t lead us into nuclear war on the platform—is anyone’s guess. On the eve of the Trump election, I predicted that Twitter’s stock price would fall to single digits by 2018. (While the company’s market capitalization has oscillated plenty since his inauguration, it is up seven points over this time last year.) Concurrently, I had also hoped, like so many other people, that Trump would act increasingly presidential after he was sworn in (wrong again). Meanwhile, I’ve heard rumors from within Twitter that some hope the platform will be purchased by a company like Google or Disney (an unlikely possibility given the site’s baggage), and other rumors that people inside fear an acquisition by a media or telecom giant like Comcast or Verizon. (This sounds like a real possibility in a couple of years, given the consolidation between media conglomerates, and the race among wireless providers to have “first screen” content on their phones.) As one co-founder of the company once predicted to me, there’s also the possibility that Twitter remains an independent, relatively strong business until something better comes along. Until this all plays out, however, one thing is clear: the brands of Twitter and Trump are now inextricably tied together; the success and failure of each will only inform the other. When you think of Trump, you think of Twitter, and vice versa. Both are nasty, volatile, mean, and untrustworthy. Both are feedback loops that continue to reinforce themselves.
There’s one thing that is still clear today as it was when Goldman and Stone sat down to write a blog post in 2009. Twitter, whether we like it or not, is a site that invariably affects the lives of tens of millions of people all over the world, and the decisions the company makes can have vast and astounding influence on everyone. It seems that the people who work at Twitter might not have any idea what to do about it.