Twitter on Monday announced an "upgrade": a new feature that will let users send direct messages to anyone. The upgrade seems to be marketed to brands and politicians who can use direct messages to communicate with normal users, but it comes with a dark lining. It allows users to opt in to remove the element of protection that existed when only users who mutually followed each other could DM one another.
Despite repeated calls from people who have been harassed on the platform, Twitter has taken few, if any, significant steps to make the community a safer one. (However, the company announced some new features Tuesday that are a move in the right direction — more on that below.) And while this development is opt-in, this latest step — making contact easier and more private — is a glaring reminder of Twitter's priorities.
Why is Twitter doing this?
Twitter is constantly creating and deploying new features. Most of the developments, like the addition of quote tweets and animated faves, are benign. They improve user experience and don't change much about the way users interact.
Opening direct messages to all users is an obvious move by Twitter to try to enter into the very rapidly growing and incredibly popular field of messaging that is currently dominated by Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, a field that's incredibly lucrative. By allowing users to message people who are not following them, Twitter allows brands to be able to message unhappy clients, journalists to be able to receive tips, and politicians to be able to campaign. The goal, Twitter said in a blog post, is to make it easier for people around the world to communicate.
But how this change will actually affect people is unclear.
What this change tells us about Twitter and harassment
This weekend, Choire Sicha wrote in the New York Times, "The actual problem [with the internet] is that none of the men running those bazillion-dollar internet companies can think of one single thing to do about all the men who send women death threats."
For years, users have been begging Twitter to change its harassment policies so that people who use the platform to write online won't be bombarded with an army of anonymous egg avatars waging threats. Twitter, more than many other social networks, is a target for harassment.
Just look at the whole Gamergate fiasco — Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and Brianna Wu were all threatened. After Robin Williams's death, his daughter Zelda Williams quit the network because she was being harassed so brutally. A Pew report found that almost half of women users online have been harassed.
Twitter has even admitted that it has a problem.
"We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years," Twitter CEO Dick Costolo wrote in an internal memo obtained by The Verge in February. "It's no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day."
This admission came right after a December rollout of releases that were supposed to improve tools for reporting harassment.
In March, Twitter attempted to improve the experience again. The platform made it easier to report harassment to local authorities just by clicking a button. These were good improvements and steps in the right direction, but Twitter admitted they were only the start of a long series of changes.
The "upgrade" announced today, though, shows that Twitter chose the opportunity to make money ahead of improving the safety of harassed and threatened groups. This is a feature that many on Twitter cannot use because they do not want another place in their life that they have to approach with anxiety and fear.
How Twitter users responded
When the announcement about the change went live on CNET, people on Twitter responded in outrage. At first, there were questions about whether people could opt out (they can), then it brought to mind the many, many ways the feature could be abused.
Here are a few responses about how open DMs would change the experience of people on Twitter:
That said, given current levels of internet harassment, forcing people to accept private communications is a good way to drive them away— Shane (@shaneferro) April 20, 2015
Trying to imagine who would want to opt-in to having everyone be able to DM them. Companies, I guess. And creepy dudes.— BGD (@BlackGirlDanger) April 20, 2015
future twitter rollouts: - faster unwanted dick pic upload speeds - male names for female users who don't want DMs from randos - taco emoji— Erin Gloria Ryan (@morninggloria) April 20, 2015
"allow users to receive DMs from other users regardless if they follow each other. " Not good, Twitter. http://t.co/Z7ihvJKuiz— Diana Kristinne (@DianaKristinne) April 20, 2015
Whether or not the new DM feature is optional, I think this still shows that Twitter doesn't have its users' safety and well-being at heart.— Sara McHenry (@yellowcardigan) April 20, 2015
twitter: we have to deal w our harassment problem ... twitter: ok now anybody can dm u http://t.co/R8YDIKSFHR— GeekyLyndsay (@GeekyLyndsay) April 20, 2015
Twitter did take some precautions
The reality is that no one has to opt in and everyone can keep their DMs exactly the way they are right now. That's a precaution that shows at least some consideration for users' safety and security.
What frustrated so many Twitter users, myself included, was that this development seems to be debuting without a clear strategy for how harassment will be handled within the new program.
According to the New York Times:
Twitter says that to protect users from unwanted messages, if a person deletes a message string from someone who is not a mutual connection, that essentially blocks the other party from sending further private messages.
When asked to comment, Twitter directed us to this blog post, which says, "We have lots more in the works to improve Direct Messages on Twitter, so that the private side of Twitter is just as fulfilling as the public side." The post links out to a page about DMs that says the only way to block and report a DM is to block and report a user. The company hasn't outlined, at least publicly, how this will work for private messages.
What Twitter could have done
Twitter made the right decision making this an opt-in program, but it could have done so much more. It could have upped security protocol to make sure that users sending DMs have some accountability by requiring a phone number or a minimum time as a registered user on the site. It could have been more transparent about how exactly blocking and reporting within DMs will work, or it could have fixed any of the myriad other problems with the product.
Twitter's block button could certainly use improving. As could the mute function, which rarely mutes anything. If you need more recommendations, we made a whole list here.
To see a company with such extreme and prevalent harassment problems greenlighting projects that have nothing to do with fixing its toxic environment is frustrating.
My faith in Twitter as a company that can or will even try to protect me from abuse has dwindled. If anything, all this "update" does is remind users who have been abused that they are not, and will not be, a priority.
Update: Twitter announced the launch of a couple of new features Tuesday morning to help people who are harassed on Twitter report abuse more easily. These include the ability to lock-out users and in some cases to require phone number verification to regain access. Though this has the potential to backfire (by abusers potentially reporting someone being abused until they are locked out) Twitter mentions that they will be monitoring these changes and "how they help ensure the overall health of a platform that encourages everyone's participation."
These, however, are retroactive changes, which is the same problem I addressed above in my critique of the new DM policy. Though this is encouraging and certainly a good step, it's one that they were forced to make.