After the recent, and ongoing, revelations about how social media platforms were used and abused during the 2016 US Presidential Election campaign, Facebook has made several announcements about re-shifting its focus to ensure the platform serves the public good, not just its own business interests.
As explained by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg:
“The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do - whether it's protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.”
Twitter, too, has been caught up in the same discussions, though Twitter’s problems with trolls and abuse, in particular, have been a key point of concern for some time. Twitter has acknowledged this at several points, though they’ve never been able to get the situation under control, with new controversies regularly cropping up and reawakening the issue.
So now, Twitter’s calling on outside help – in a tweet thread, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has called for submissions to help them make Twitter a better place.
We’re committing Twitter to help increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation, and to hold ourselves publicly accountable towards progress.— jack (@jack) March 1, 2018
In the accompanying tweets, Dorsey notes that they ‘love instant, public, global messaging and conversation’, but that they ‘didn’t fully predict or understand the real-world negative consequences’ of such.
“We acknowledge that now, and are determined to find holistic and fair solutions.”
Dorsey highlights the platform’s issues with abuse and harassment, and the use of bots and troll armies to manipulate public messaging, noting that they are, as always, working to fix them (Twitter recently rolled out new restrictions on their API to limit mass bot use), but that thus far they’ve been unable to meet user needs in this regard. Which is why they’re calling on additional assistance.
“What we do know is that we need to commit to a rigorous and independently vetted set of metrics to measure the health of public conversation on Twitter, and we must commit to sharing our results publicly to benefit all who serve the public conversation. We simply can’t and don’t want to do this alone. So we’re seeking help by opening up an RFP process to cast the widest net possible for great ideas and implementations. This will take time, and we’re committed to providing all the necessary resources.”
In the accompanying blog post, Twitter notes that:
“We’re committing to helping increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation around the world, and to hold ourselves publicly accountable toward progress. By measuring our contribution to the overall health of the public conversation, we believe we can more holistically approach and measure our impact on the world for years to come.”
The approach is very similar to Facebook, taking a proactive, inclusive approach to trying to solve the platform’s problems, and highlighting that the need to do so overrides their business goals.
Interestingly, Twitter has released this just days after former US President Barack Obama noted in his address to the MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference that social platforms have a greater responsibility than they’ve thus far acknowledged in this regard.
“I do think the large platforms - Google and Facebook being the most obvious, Twitter and others as well, are part of that ecosystem - have to have a conversation about their business model that recognizes they are a public good as well as a commercial enterprise. They're not just an invisible platform, they're shaping our culture in powerful ways.”
Maybe that was the wake-up call Twitter needed – though, as noted, Facebook has already made several announcements on this front, moving to encourage more positive social actions online (through changes to the News Feed), while also seeking to boost community engagement through new initiatives.
It’s an interesting area – what weight should social platforms be putting on contributing to social good over their own business interests, and how, in practice, will that impact usage of those networks?
In Facebook’s case, their shift has already lead to negative impacts for business users – just this week, web publisher Little Things shut down, laying off around 100 staff, and pointing the finger at Facebook’s algorithm changes as the key instrument in its demise.
If Twitter makes a more concerted effort along the same lines, that could see similar restrictions put on business posts on their platform – it’s not at that point yet, and that’s obviously not the key focus. But it’ll be important for social media managers to take note of these shifts, and ensure that they’re aware of how it impacts sharing behaviors and distribution.
Of course, any move on this front should be encouraged – protecting users and ensuring people’s wellbeing is paramount. But as social media professionals, it’s also in our interests to be aware of such shifts, and where possible, ensure we’re contributing to the broader goal. Ideally, the solutions will create better, more inclusive, more positive platforms, and enable more constructive, effective conversations online, which will be beneficial for all.
There’s much to play out, and it’ll be interesting to see how Twitter looks to improve their platform as a result.