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Twitter is public, but it could offer a lot more privacy

Twitter is public, but it could offer a lot more privacy

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A picture of the Twitter logo.
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Yesterday, Twitter issued a call for proposals to measure its “contribution to the overall health of the public conversation” so that it could help “encourage more healthy debate, conversations, and critical thinking,” and discourage “abuse, spam and manipulation.” It’s the kind of high-minded request that you’d expect from a platform that presents itself as a powerful civic forum for the digital age. But measuring the “public conversation” isn’t going to solve Twitter’s central problem: that there’s a big difference between promoting a public conversation and creating a livable space, and Twitter might not be able to have both.

Twitter’s model of engagement is almost completely binary: you can take a veritable vow of silence with protected tweets or you can speak up and be totally accessible. Beyond blocking individual users, Twitter protections mostly involve muting other people’s tweets, not controlling how people see and interact with your own.

Most people on Twitter aren’t public figures in need of critique

For Twitter the digital agora, this is invaluable. Politicians and companies can’t dodge feedback from ordinary people, and strangers can riff on jokes or debate ideas without being invited to a private party. But most Twitter users aren’t power brokers in need of critique, and living in public has its costs. Maybe you’re fine with someone retweeting an anecdote but don’t want to see it in a news story. Or you make a perfect joke that goes viral and get blindsided by people scrutinizing your entire timeline. Or you tweet a question for people in your industry, but someone retweets it to a huge generalist audience, and you get a bunch of useless answers. Or you just want to vent about a problem without getting well-meaning advice!

These trade-offs aren’t fodder for debate over digital privacy or the abstract ethics of textual reproduction. They’re just things that make Twitter a less enjoyable place. They arise not because Twitter didn’t ban the right Nazis or purge the right bots, but because its interface doesn’t give people control over their own words. Twitter could change this. For instance, it could let users:

  • Disable off-platform tweet embedding, making it harder to spread tweets in news stories or blog posts
  • Block retweets or quote-tweeting, for either specific posts or an entire timeline, slowing down the outrage-quoting that fuels Twitter dogpiles
  • Completely disable replies to a specific tweet — for when you literally mean “do not @ me”
  • Only accept retweets and replies from people they follow, instead of having to mute or filter notifications from random users
  • Selectively protect individual tweets
  • Protect all tweets without losing a verification badge, if they have one

These changes wouldn’t prevent trolls from making death threats or stop a fake news account from tweeting propaganda. But a lot of Twitter toxicity isn’t clear ban-worthy monstrosity. It’s the death-by-a-thousand-cuts of getting dumb replies to a six-month-old tweet, having anonymous insults pop up under every new post, or having one fragment of a Twitter thread pulled out of context and circulated far beyond your control. It’s thoughtless behavior that’s possible without Twitter’s nearly frictionless information-sharing but greatly encouraged by it.

And even if they don’t end harassment, privacy tools could make it easier to build a professional Twitter profile with a few informative tweets, without potential employers clicking to find a flood of abusive replies. They’d make it easier to stake out your own little space on Twitter, without having to jump into the larger fray.

Twitter’s interface doesn’t cause toxic behavior, but it could help mitigate it

The Twitter community has developed an arcane code of honor to compensate for its lack of privacy controls. There’s a formula for calculating when a bigger account should put a smaller one “on blast” with a quote-tweet, a heated debate over when reporters should embed tweets in articles, and a careful etiquette for judging when to refrain from tweeting at somebody. But why not also let people set their own boundaries if they’re so inclined?

Well, for one thing, all these options could be abused by powerful users to avoid hearing criticism. (Imagine if nobody could quote Donald Trump’s tweets except his biggest fans, or correct a news outlet when it got something wrong.) Most anti-harassment tools have rolled out first to big-name verified users, but these would be best applied like anti-defamation rules: the more famous you are, the less control you should get. That’s not exactly a winning business model for Twitter.

These tools would also break Twitter’s freewheeling conversational flow. You couldn’t count on being able to engage with any idea, or pop into any exchange you see. It’d be frustrating to click on a good tweet and realize you can’t retweet or reply. Twitter’s boundaries would become less porous, and the service less predictable, especially if people could change a tweet’s settings at any time — which would be by far the most versatile and useful approach.

Obviously, Twitter isn’t the only social network. If you want a smaller microphone and more privacy, you can go to Facebook or Mastodon or a web forum of your choice.

But I like Twitter’s format, and Nazi troll bots aside, I like a lot of its users. It doesn’t make me call casual acquaintances my “friends” or make me pick a specific community of like-minded people to hang out with. I can get to know a colleague through their feed or laugh at a retweeted quip from some stranger whose name I’ll never see again. I’d rather have a better version of that flawed platform than a new start somewhere else.

People could still engage with Twitter as a free-for-all and ignore these nuanced privacy settings. But they could also choose to engage with it their own terms in a less exhausting way. Healthy debate isn’t the same thing as perpetual, all-encompassing verbal combat with strangers. Critical thinking flourishes when people can take time to consider and change their opinions, instead of simply defending them to the death. And while I wait for Twitter to construct a philosophically sound and practically enforceable model of collective social good, I’m willing to settle for experimenting with the user experience.

I’d say “don’t @ me,” but really, I can’t stop you.