As 17 percent of Internet-users know already, it’s not always easy to be a lady on Twitter. And for a brief window yesterday evening, it got even worse.
That’s because Twitter pushed out, and then promptly rolled back, a change to the policy that helps protect harassed users from their trolls. Under its current block policy, Twitter lets users hide their profiles from people who bother them, as well as block their messages and @-replies. A change to that policy halved its protections, allowing trolls to continue reading and retweeting the profiles of their victims, even if they couldn’t tweet to them directly.
Why, many users raged last night, would Twitter even consider such a change? According to the company’s blog, they were concerned with the free flow of “ideas” and the possibility that angry trolls retaliate against users once they realize they’ve been blocked. Others, like tech journalist Glenn Fleishman, guessed it had more to do with ads.
But the best answer might be a bit more fundamental: Men and women have very different experiences on Twitter. And at Twitter Inc., which only just gained its first female board member, the Female Twitter Experience represents something of a blind spot.
There are, regrettably, no exact estimates on the scale of Twitter trolling. But ask any woman with any kind of Twitter following or public persona if she has ever been trolled, and she will almost definitely say yes. I have a pretty modest Twitter following, and I have been trolled just in the course of writing this 500-word blog post. The (often unprintable) @-replies for people like Nancy Pelosi read, frankly, like a treatise on misogyny.
Twitter is not unaware of this problem. Multiple studies have demonstrated that, for better or worse, men are more likely to be cyber-bullies, and women are more likely to resort to privacy controls. Over the summer, the journalist Caroline Criado-Perez and British legislator Stella Creasy, campaigning to get Jane Austen on the £10 bill received a torrent of tweets so vicious — as many as one rape threat per minute, at one point — that authorities investigated. A British parliamentarian later wrote to Twitter, criticizing the site’s response as “inadequate” and “extremely weak.”
But Twitter’s failure to take this kind of abuse more seriously seems like an inevitable consequence of the company’s male-dominated culture. Twitter didn’t appoint its first female board member, Marjorie Scardino, until last week. For the six years before that, the company had only men — and mostly white men — on its board.
Appointing Scardino was a step in the right direction, as was listening to users and quickly retracting that changed block policy. But if Twitter really wants to make the platform the “best and safest” it can be for everyone, than hiring a more diverse crowd of project managers and board members and engineers would probably help.