Monday, February 9, 2015

Twitter vows to be less vile

     The other day I almost downloaded the Uber app so I could try the controversial ride service.
     That’s a lie.
     I thought about downloading Uber. Not that I need it. I Divvy most places, even in winter. But I could use Uber a few times, then write something. Though the issue seems pretty clear already: Either cabbies need the expensive licensing and training required of taxi services or they don’t.
     So the thought passed.
     I am not what is called an “early adopter.” By the time I try something, it’s passe. Although I did join Twitter early enough — nearly four years ago — to snag the @neilsteinberg tag, which means the other Neil Steinbergs, like the movie producer in Los Angeles and the business leader in Rhode Island, have to make do with other names.
     Because of this, occasionally someone thinks I’m a different Neil Steinberg, particularly the businessman, and sends something like this actual tweet: “Whom would you suggest I discuss funding for the programs at We Share Hope?”
     I paused over that, licking my chops, itching, just itching, to tweet back: “What the fuck do I care? I live for cold brew and bodacious babes!”
     Or some such thing.
     Because it would be funny, or my idea of funny at the moment, tossing that back at the serious, Let's-Build-a-Better-Rhode Island-type trying to tap this other Neil Steinberg's Babbity brain, getting the wesenheimer instead. Quite an awkward encounter at the Rhode Island Rotary after that.
     But I didn't. Because I can do that Think-About-What-Happens-Next trick learned slowly, after a sufficient number of years kneeling on a rail in an editor's office. I wrote back coolly: "Try the Neil Steinberg who is some kind of businessman in Rhode Island, and not me."
     A lot of people don't take that step. They just blurt out what they think is funny or mean, or both. They think cruelty is funny - they'll mock a 5-year-old who dies of cancer. That's why there's no comments section in newspapers anymore, because it's a full-time job - several full-time jobs - plucking out the nasty remarks, the racist jeremiads, the insane blather.
      Twitter has become a free-fire zone, with threats and condemnations pinging endlessly about. That isn't news. What surprised me is that their boss admits it.
     "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 a memo to his company posted by The Verge website. "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."
     Robin Williams' daughter renounced Twitter after being mocked in the wake of her father's suicide. Feminist comic writer Lindy West recently did a moving segment on public radio about one troll who set up a Twitter account masquerading as her father.  
     "I got a message on Twitter from my dead dad," she told "This American Life." "I don't remember what it said exactly . . . but it was mean, and my dad was never mean, so it couldn't really be from him. Also, he was dead."
     Twitter abuse is especially bad for women like West, whose outspokenness is met with a endless barrage of rape and death threats. Not that feminists can't be nasty too when attacking a man for straying from the path of political correctness. Trust me here. And there is a wave-the-bloody-shirt quality to recounting these threats, displayed as evidence of one's place on the slippery pole of significance. Yet it is undeniable that, as in society, women get the short end of the stick online.
     Costolo vowed that Twitter is going to do better at helping people chase trolls like West's out from under their bridges. If that seems unusually candid for a CEO, remember that Costolo is a Midwesterner - a University of Michigan computer grad who came to Chicago for the comedy, made millions in the tech boom, left because of the weather, for California, where he made even more money heading Twitter. Usually money drowns candor, but that doesn't seem true here.
     "I'm frankly ashamed of how poorly we've dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO," he continued. "It's absurd. There's no excuse for it. I take full responsibility for not being more aggressive on this front."
     Then again, abuse is bad for business. While profits are strong, Twitter's growth is flat. There's only so much scorn users are willing to take.
     It's an interesting question, whether the Internet makes us more vile, by offering opportunities to hurt strangers anonymously. Or whether people already are horrible and the Internet merely reflects it. I'd say a bit of both. If you look at history, people can live amicably for years, then there's a social disruption and suddenly they're slaughtering their neighbors because they can.
      Bottom line: People will generally be as vile as permitted. The Internet allows it, so it's there. Good for Twitter trying to dial the nastiness back. Every kindergarten class starts to act up the moment the teacher steps out of the room. Sadly, one truth about freedom is that it's abused until somebody imposes limits and consequences..


  1. I dislike Twitter because it limits you to 140 characters in which you can't say much. I wish someone would start a competing service where your post had to be a minimum of 3,000 words or you couldn't send it. That I would sign up for.

    1. "I dislike Twitter because it limits you to 140 characters. I'd sign up for a service where your post had to be a minimum of 3,000 words."

      Twitterized for your convenience. ; ) I just thought it was funny that, in making a comment extolling the virtues of wordiness, you help demonstrate what can be communicated in the Twitter format. But, I hope you won't take this wrong. I don't participate on Twitter, and most of my contributions around here come much closer to your 3,000 word ideal than to the 140, unfortunately for all! This is meant in good fun, not to seemingly portray the attitude of a nasty Tweet-flamer. : )

    2. You are correct in asserting that some of those overzealous feminists seem to think all men should be hated and mistrusted.

  2. I like the Golden Rule trick, learned slowly over many years, because it results in less hurt feelings and responses like "Wrong Neil Steinberg :-) "

  3. You swear too much, Sir. I hope your wife doesn't put up with that language.

    1. The blog is called "every goddamn day" for a reason. Don't go bowling and then complain about the clatter of the pins.

  4. There's a magical legal provision often inserted in contracts by wily lawyers stating that party A will not be responsible for consequential damages with respect to party B. Most of us cruise through life as if we'd made such a deal with heaven.

  5. A link to the Lindy West story you mentioned-
    Sadly it's the exception, not the rule.

  6. I too am not an "early adapter," thinking like Mark Twain it would be nice, when the world ends, to live in a place like Cincinnati, "where everything arrives 20 years late." That said, I doubt that even the passage of 20 years will persuade me to leave my twitter-free universe, believing that a medium that enables, and thereby encourages, one to type faster than on can think can't be good.

    On the matter of swearing, I'm of an age to sympathize with Anonymous' objection, but believe the quaint notion that women must be greatly offended by unseemly language is no longer one we can cling to. Or that they are themselves incapable of indulging -- a modern Mark Twain, hearing a lady swear, would be unlikely to observe that "she's got the words, but she ain't got the music."

    There still is the "mixed company," thing, of course. As there was when Martial, a Roman poet who wrote naughty poems, wrote this little lyric.

    "To read my book, the virgin shy
    May blush (while Brutus standeth by.
    But when he's gone, read through what's writ,
    And never stain a check for it."

    Tom Evans

  7. "cheek", of course. And close parentheses after "by"

    You see why I don't twitter. Or tweet. Or whatever.


  8. From an earlier column: your colleague Ms. Washington had a nice write up on Andrew as well today.


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