Why Tech Companies Don't Understand Online Abuse

[Content note: online harassment and threats]

I’ve been hearing from several people, such as @thetrudz and Oolon, that Twitter is now making tweets with links to other tweets show up in the mentions of the person whose tweet is linked to. I tested it myself and it didn’t happen, so I’m guessing the feature is being rolled out gradually.

I haven’t seen any announcement about this yet, but assuming it’s accurate and happening, I think this is a good opportunity to talk about what I see as a fundamental disconnect between how tech companies and their employees see things, and how people like me and my friends and fellow writers see things.

A lot of the Twitter/Facebook/etc ethos is all about sharing and openness. Sure, there are some privacy settings; you can make your Facebook posts friends-only or certain-lists-only, and you can make your tweets protected. But otherwise, Facebook and Twitter and their respective engineers and designers really don’t grok how crucial privacy is for a lot of people.

You saw this, too, when Twitter briefly changed its block functionality to allow blocked users to continue to follow and RT their blockers; the blockers just wouldn’t know that they did so. After a large backlash, Twitter reversed the change.

Likewise with the recent Storify controversy, where neither Twitter nor Storify’s upper management could understand why people were so upset about being sent notifications that their tweets were being Storified, and why they were so upset that someone who had been reported many times for harassment and abuse could continue to use Storify and to archive others’ tweets using it. Eventually the service finally blocked online stalker Elevatorgate’s ability to send notifications to the users whose tweets he would creepily Storify dozens of times per day, but they still did not deactivate his account, even though it should have been painfully obvious to anyone who engaged with the critiques even marginally that the Elevatorgate account was intended to intimidate women.

And now with this apparent change. Whoever at Twitter decided to rewrite the code so that links to tweets appear in the OP’s mentions probably thought, “Oh hey, here’s another way to help people participate in conversations!” Whereas many people who link to tweets rather than replying or retweeting are probably thinking, “I really need to talk about this thing that’s going on while flying under the radar of the scary/horrible person who said it.”

Here’s the thing: not everyone wants to see everything that’s being said about them. Not everyone wants anyone whose tweets or work they’re trying to discuss to necessarily have easy access to the posts, even if they understand that the posts are public and could theoretically be found by the person they’re about. That’s why many people consider it a Twitter faux pas to respond to someone’s criticism of someone by tagging that person into the conversation when they hadn’t previously been. I don’t always want every asshole comedian or conservative writer to have easy access to the things I say about them, even though I accept that there’s a certain risk that they’ll stumble upon the posts. It’s just like, don’t make it easier for them, kay?

This is a significant disconnect. I understand why these tech dudes don’t get it, since they’ve probably never had to wonder, “How do I warn my friends and followers about this abusive person while minimizing the risk of said person turning on me and threatening me with rape and death?” They have had to wonder, “How do I connect with more people on this platform and know when people are discussing my work?” Those are the sorts of concerns that feel most immediate to them. As I’ve written before, many men are not at all cognizant of the abuse that gets heaped on women and others unless they see it for themselves, and you’re not going to see some troll tweeting garbage at a woman on Twitter unless you go out looking for it.

When confronted with this disconnect, many tech executives and PR people get really defensive and start dragging out tired cliches about heat and kitchens. Setting aside for now the fact that an Internet without any of the people who are currently getting harassed and abused on it would be a really boring place, these guys don’t understand that it’s not actually that difficult to give people the tools they need to control what they see online and who sees their stuff online, and there are a lot of reasons people might want these tools even if they’re not subject to the sort of harassment and abuse that some of us are. Plenty of people have creepy, borderline-stalky exes. Plenty of people would like to prevent their parents or employers from seeing some or all of their posts. Plenty of people get annoying trolls–not necessarily the horrifyingly violent ones, but just the ones that make being online kind of a drag.

In general, openness and transparency can be very positive forces, for personal lives and for political movements both. We see evidence of this all the time. But at their best, openness and transparency empower people, and people who have lost the ability to control information about themselves and their lives can’t possibly be empowered.

Until these developers listen to the people using their platforms, these platforms will continue to make changes that drastically increase risk for marginalized people, and they will continue to refuse to make the changes that would decrease the risk instead.

Why Tech Companies Don't Understand Online Abuse

6 thoughts on “Why Tech Companies Don't Understand Online Abuse

  1. AMM

    For some reason, this reminds me of Tina Fey’s story (in Bossypants) about Kotex Classic: the one with the punch line: they had no clue.

    These are guys who know nothing about what life is like for people outside their rather narrow — and privileged — demographic (male, young, white, straight, single, middle-class, dudebro, abled, etc.), and don’t really believe in anything they haven’t experienced. Cf.: your June 4 post “They Have To See It With Their Own Eyes”. They’re the guys (gender intentional) who write video/computer games where only the males have agency and the females are prizes (or booty.)

    The quasi-quote “If they don’t have bread, why don’t they eat cake?” comes to mind.

  2. 2

    I agree it’s an issue of privileged people not getting it; I also feel it’s an issue of people who think they are *so brilliant* that they don’t think any feedback that does not already agree with them is worth listening to. There is demand for greater privacy, for restricted access to personal information or communication, but no response.

  3. 3

    In general my interactions with tech companies have been coloured by their arrogance and ignorance. They often seem to believe they know all the answers while simultaneously knowing very little about my business. It certainly comes as no surprise that a lot of them do not think about these issues. The solution, I believe, is to keep talking about it like this to encourage more conscientious technologists. They are out there!

  4. 4

    I think part of the problem is that reducing potential for abuse in computer programs (websites/services) has always immerged naturally, after such abuse has been noticed already occuring. This is true for SQL injection attacks, site crawling, DDOS attacks, contact-form SPAM, user registration SPAM and many more technical avenues of abuse. It had to start happening and it had to be important to the tech people who were resolving it (for instance, getting fired and potentially jailed because a loophole in your code lead to theft of thousands of credit card numbers tends to motivate people).

    This kind of user-on-user abuse, to a tech person, seems like you’re asking a worker who just finished laying down pavement to make sure people stop catcalling on it.

    So basically I’d say these ideas (about the necessity of protection/blocking/tools in social media or any websites) are what will change things – make this an issue, complain to the companies, get their bosses to shout at the techies and future iterations should include improvements. Also, more techie women would help.

  5. 5

    I think a lot of the weird privacy practices of social media, especially Facebook, can be traced to GSF1 (and the others to a lesser extent: as that page puts it, “arguably, Friendster was designed by a GSF4 carrier”). That and bliss ninnyism in the form of the belief that there are no conflicts between people that aren’t caused by poor communication. The latter, in particular, leads to the sincere belief that harassment is just misunderstanding.

    1. 5.1

      I’ve never heard of “bliss ninnyism” before, but that’s a fascinating way to explain a lot of phenomena, including many people’s unwillingness to end relationships that just aren’t working (not even necessarily because of abuse or anything like that) because they keep thinking that if they just communicate to their partner how they want the relationship to change, it will.

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