Why Tech Companies Don’t Understand Online Abuse

[Content note: online harassment and threats]

I’ve been hearing from several people, such as @thetrudz and Oolon, that Twitter is now making tweets with links to other tweets show up in the mentions of the person whose tweet is linked to. I tested it myself and it didn’t happen, so I’m guessing the feature is being rolled out gradually.

I haven’t seen any announcement about this yet, but assuming it’s accurate and happening, I think this is a good opportunity to talk about what I see as a fundamental disconnect between how tech companies and their employees see things, and how people like me and my friends and fellow writers see things.

A lot of the Twitter/Facebook/etc ethos is all about sharing and openness. Sure, there are some privacy settings; you can make your Facebook posts friends-only or certain-lists-only, and you can make your tweets protected. But otherwise, Facebook and Twitter and their respective engineers and designers really don’t grok how crucial privacy is for a lot of people.

You saw this, too, when Twitter briefly changed its block functionality to allow blocked users to continue to follow and RT their blockers; the blockers just wouldn’t know that they did so. After a large backlash, Twitter reversed the change.

Likewise with the recent Storify controversy, where neither Twitter nor Storify’s upper management could understand why people were so upset about being sent notifications that their tweets were being Storified, and why they were so upset that someone who had been reported many times for harassment and abuse could continue to use Storify and to archive others’ tweets using it. Eventually the service finally blocked online stalker Elevatorgate’s ability to send notifications to the users whose tweets he would creepily Storify dozens of times per day, but they still did not deactivate his account, even though it should have been painfully obvious to anyone who engaged with the critiques even marginally that the Elevatorgate account was intended to intimidate women.

And now with this apparent change. Whoever at Twitter decided to rewrite the code so that links to tweets appear in the OP’s mentions probably thought, “Oh hey, here’s another way to help people participate in conversations!” Whereas many people who link to tweets rather than replying or retweeting are probably thinking, “I really need to talk about this thing that’s going on while flying under the radar of the scary/horrible person who said it.”

Here’s the thing: not everyone wants to see everything that’s being said about them. Not everyone wants anyone whose tweets or work they’re trying to discuss to necessarily have easy access to the posts, even if they understand that the posts are public and could theoretically be found by the person they’re about. That’s why many people consider it a Twitter faux pas to respond to someone’s criticism of someone by tagging that person into the conversation when they hadn’t previously been. I don’t always want every asshole comedian or conservative writer to have easy access to the things I say about them, even though I accept that there’s a certain risk that they’ll stumble upon the posts. It’s just like, don’t make it easier for them, kay?

This is a significant disconnect. I understand why these tech dudes don’t get it, since they’ve probably never had to wonder, “How do I warn my friends and followers about this abusive person while minimizing the risk of said person turning on me and threatening me with rape and death?” They have had to wonder, “How do I connect with more people on this platform and know when people are discussing my work?” Those are the sorts of concerns that feel most immediate to them. As I’ve written before, many men are not at all cognizant of the abuse that gets heaped on women and others unless they see it for themselves, and you’re not going to see some troll tweeting garbage at a woman on Twitter unless you go out looking for it.

When confronted with this disconnect, many tech executives and PR people get really defensive and start dragging out tired cliches about heat and kitchens. Setting aside for now the fact that an Internet without any of the people who are currently getting harassed and abused on it would be a really boring place, these guys don’t understand that it’s not actually that difficult to give people the tools they need to control what they see online and who sees their stuff online, and there are a lot of reasons people might want these tools even if they’re not subject to the sort of harassment and abuse that some of us are. Plenty of people have creepy, borderline-stalky exes. Plenty of people would like to prevent their parents or employers from seeing some or all of their posts. Plenty of people get annoying trolls–not necessarily the horrifyingly violent ones, but just the ones that make being online kind of a drag.

In general, openness and transparency can be very positive forces, for personal lives and for political movements both. We see evidence of this all the time. But at their best, openness and transparency empower people, and people who have lost the ability to control information about themselves and their lives can’t possibly be empowered.

Until these developers listen to the people using their platforms, these platforms will continue to make changes that drastically increase risk for marginalized people, and they will continue to refuse to make the changes that would decrease the risk instead.