#AskCostolo and Twitter's Abuse Problem

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Yesterday afternoon Twitter CEO Dick Costolo was interviewed by Julia Boorstin on CNBC. If you watched the interview on TV, what you saw was a pretty standard interview with a tech CEO on a friendly network. If you kept track on the social media service that Costolo is in charge of running, you saw something very different.

In the lead-up to the interview CNBC invited Twitter users to submit questions using #AskCostolo. The questions that came in through the hashtag were overwhelmingly about why Twitter’s system for handling abuse is byzantine, slow, and often ultimately toothless. Costolo’s response, documented on CNBC’s version of the Twitter conversation was brief:

We have a whole product team focused on user safety and privacy, and we'll continue to invest in that as we become increasingly the world's information network, obviously it's the case that we need to take that seriously and address it.

A non-answer answer if there ever was one, and in response to a documented problem disproportionately faced by women and people of color. Mikki Kendall, for instance, who TLDR spoke with a couple weeks ago about how she and others experimented with changing their avatars to images of white men in order to reduce harassing tweets.

Twitter’s abuse system is laden with problems. Aside from slow response time and general difficulty of submitting a form, you can’t report abuse unless you’re directly involved (i.e. being threatened). That means that in a mass social situation users are forced into the role of (speaking) bystanders while threats and abuse proliferate. One counter-argument to this is that falsely retributive harassment reports would skyrocket if users watching were allowed to step in. But those will come in anyway — someone acting out of retribution isn’t necessarily going to deal in good faith and admit they aren’t directly involved.

Costolo made reference to Twitter becoming “the world’s information network,” but their approach to abuse leaves some questions about whether or not they're ready for that. If, as former Twitter head of security John Adams suggests in an exchange with writer Shanley Kane, it’s a matter of number of users and complaints, then maybe not enough money and time is being spent on the problem. In the same exchange Adams also makes reference to becoming an “arbitrator of content.” But Twitter is already an arbitrator of content, the question that remains to be answered is how they want to take on that role. People will stick to Twitter or not based on what their experience on the site is like. If it's an experience of having abuse ignored, they may not come back.