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This article was published on February 7, 2015

Why charging a subscription won’t fix Twitter’s harassment problem

Why charging a subscription won’t fix Twitter’s harassment problem
Roberto Baldwin
Story by

Roberto Baldwin

Roberto Baldwin was a reporter for The Next Web in San Francisco between April 2014 and March 2015. Roberto Baldwin was a reporter for The Next Web in San Francisco between April 2014 and March 2015.

Twitter has a problem. No, not its slowing adoption rate. Ok, that’s actually a problem. The real problem for those who actually use the service is harassment and how the service’s anonymous nature feeds the beast.

It’s a big enough problem that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo sent an internal memo (that was leaked to The Verge) to Twitter employees about how the company hasn’t done enough to curb the trolling. He took full responsibility for the lack of action.

He also told Buzzfeed that Twitter plans on making harder for abusers to be heard. What all those changes will be are still unknown. So it’s time to bust out the idea machine.

Angel investor Jason Calacanis told CNBC that Twitter will reportedly charge users to become verified (details of Calacanis’ idea can be found on his blog). Then anyone that’s on Twitter that doesn’t want to hear from unverified accounts can live in a troll-free world of tweets from people that have taken the time to tell twitter who they really are.

Before I start explaining about why I think this is a bad idea, I want to make it perfectly clear that I’m not attacking Calacanis for having this idea. Twitter needs help in this area and it should be open to any all ideas it can find.  Calacanis even thinks Twitter could use the “everyone with cash gets verified” plan to make some money.

Troll problem solved and bonus cash!

Well, not so much.

Say goodbye to users

First, remember a while back there was a rumor that Facebook would start charging for users to keep their accounts.  People lost their collective mind over this even though there was no actual data to back up the assertion.

Now imagine what happens if Twitter announces it’s going to charge users to verify who they really are. If the growth rate is slow now, imagine the exodus of users that feel like Twitter has offered them a bait and switch.

“Sure, sign up for our service! “Ok, now pay us!” It doesn’t matter that the payments will be for users wanting verified accounts, all users will see is a money grab and they’ll flee.

Twitter is the voice of the world, but especially for people with $$$

This may be a shock to some people, but there are Twitter users outside of the tech world. In fact, people use Twitter everywhere. Voices fill the service from all over the globe. Some are good. Some are horrible. Very few are outstanding. But, when you tier a system that’s become a global form of communication, you cut off some of those voices.

Some of those voices are anonymous because sharing their identity would put their lives in danger. Others might not have access to items necessary to prove that they are who they say they are.

Subscriptions create a class system on the network that favor those who can pony up the cash and have nothing to lose by sharing their identity. If you were to ask cofounder and Ferguson protester Jack Dorsey how he feels about a class system on Twitter, I’m pretty sure he’d be against it.

Won’t actually stop trolls

The assumption is that all harassment comes from anonymous burner (accounts created just to harass an individual) accounts. Yes, creating a system where users can block all but verified accounts will shut those people up. But there are plenty of users out there that are more than happy to bask in the glory of their horribleness without hiding their identity.

I mean, there’s this guy and this idiot. These two guys and others like them would be more than happy to pay $1, $5, or $10 a year to keep trolling Twitter. Some of these trolls have convinced others to support their horrible antics.

It’s a pretty low financial barrier that won’t stop racists, misogynist and all around horrible people. Yes, we’ll know who they are, but they just don’t care.

Gaming the system

Someone will game the system. It’s easy to pretend to be someone else. A bored hacker can set up shop selling accounts based on real people to harassers. Not exactly the kind of cottage industry Twitter wants to be responsible for. This situation will appear only in the most extreme cases, but those are the ones Twitter should be concerned about.

Other ideas

It would be unfair of me to tear down the subscription idea without throwing a few out there. These might be horrible ideas and most of them I’ve heard from other people. But I can’t tear down one guy’s thoughts then walk away like a jerk.

Waiting period: Allow accounts to auto block any new accounts until after a two week period. Most of these burner accounts are born in the moment of an attack. If they have to wait two weeks to continue that attack, they’re less likely to keep assaulting.

IP blocking: Twitter knows the IP of each tweet. Blocking the IP of a harasser will slow them down. Some of them might not even be smart enough to log out of their ISP for a new IP number.

Block everyone you are not following: If you want to use Twitter but you don’t want all the noise, the ability to block absolutely everyone that you’re not following could be nice without the financial hit and process that comes with.

Swarm blocking: If you get enough blocks from a group, your account is suspended for a day or week. Of course, a group of trolls could do that to someone they’re harassing. Okay, maybe this idea needs some work.

In fact, all these ideas are fraught with issues. This is what makes this issue so difficult for Twitter. It need better reporting tools, that’s a given, but how do you stop those tools from being abused? How do you stop humans from being humans?

The magic of Twitter is that it’s more human that other social networks. It’s stream of thought. It’s friends chatting. It’s people trying to make a difference in the world by highlighting what’s going on. But it’s also full of the fragments of us that make humans a horrible species.

The taunting, hate and threats jump from our fingers quicker than our lips. Then the pile-on happens and every like-minded individual in your circle of digital friends is attacking one person.

But stopping the worst of us shouldn’t be at the expense of quieting the best.

Read nextJack Dorsey’s first tweetstorm shows Twitter listens when it’s convenient

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