Pando

Costolo will clean up Twitter -- not because he's a good guy, but because you can't monetize trolls

By David Holmes , written on February 5, 2015

From The News Desk

Among the recurring themes at our Don't Be Awful fest last month was the notion that the primary reasons companies do bad things are: A. They can get away it; and B. It's in their best interest from a business perspective.

Google reads your emails because the company's prime source of revenue is serving up targeted ads. The company may not see anything wrong with reading content shared on a service it provides for free, but many disagree.

Facebook researches how to manipulate our emotions because, again, the company makes its money off advertising. By having a keen understanding of its users' thoughts and feelings -- and, moreover, the ability to shape these feelings -- it can target advertisements more effectively. Did a user just post about feeling insecure about his or her appearance? Facebook will happily put an ad for beauty products in that user's News Feed. Or better yet, Facebook can offer up a bunch of stories about attractive celebrities and then serve up an ad for beauty products.

For Uber, the calculus is even simpler: Complying with regulations is expensive, and therefore it will do everything it can -- within the acceptable boundaries set by public opinion -- to avoid them, even at the risk of its users.

And then there's Secret and Whisper, which looked to monetize scandalous, unsourced rumors about people, celebrity or otherwise. The more scandalous the better, therefore making community moderation in direct opposition with its business model.

But Twitter is different. There are many awful things about it as a user. The trolling and abuse and harassment has gotten so bad that CEO Dick Costolo called the problem "embarrassing" in a recent internal memo:

I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It’s absurd. There’s no excuse for it. I take full responsibility for not being more aggressive on this front. It’s nobody else’s fault but mine, and it’s embarrassing.
Somebody even created a splash page and hashtag movement called #deardickc, which implores the CEO to "please make Twitter awesome again."

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Usually when a CEO vows to make a product experience less evil, these words should be taken with a swimming pool full of salt. It's easy for Uber to apologize for its jerkishness and throw down some lofty words about making the world a better place. And yet with each new market it enters, we see the same script play out: It ignores every regulation it can until it has a foothold in the market, and only then does it negotiate with governments from this advantageous position, bolstered by local consumer demand.

So what makes Twitter any different? It's a massive public company with shareholders demanding fast profits. Can the company afford to do something sheerly out of the goodness of its unquestionably corporate heart?

Yes. Because, unlike Facebook, Google, Uber, Secret, and many other well-capitalized Silicon Valley firms, Twitter's awfulness is not aligned with its business model.

First, it's important to note how Twitter makes its money. In a Medium piece, Steven Levy writes that while Twitter's user growth has continually disappointed Wall Street, it's met revenue expectations far faster than many expected, hitting an estimated $1.375 billion in revenue last year. Twitter earned this cash through promoted tweets and trends that worm their way into users' feeds. Crucially, Levy writes, advertisers do not pay based on how many people see the tweets; they pay based on how many people engage with them by retweeting, favoriting, or clicking a link.

That's been Twitter's revenue strategy all along. Rather than focus solely on building its user base (though, to be sure, Twitter is rightly concerned about that, too) it works to create an experience that leads to highly-engaged users who will be more likely to interact with each other in positive ways -- and that includes brands.

Yes, Twitter targets these promotions based on what its users tweet, but the company's advertising machine differs greatly from Google's more suspect ad construct. The majority of Twitter activity is public, so there's little moral outrage to be felt over scrubbing these tweets for data that reveals purchasing intent or even gender -- Twitter says it can predict whether a user is male or female with 90 percent accuracy, unlike Facebook which demands this information upfront.

But back to the trolls whom Dick Costolo promises to exorcize from his platform. A Twitter troll is not a very valuable asset -- not to fellow users and, more importantly, not to advertisers. It's difficult to monetize trolls and their burner accounts, which exist not to be part of a larger conversation, but solely to spew vitriol at Twitter's more earnest users. Furthermore, a Twitter full of hate is not a Twitter most users want to use. Facebook can algorithmically downplay negative posts if it wants. But Twitter's more raw feed -- along with "mentions" which make targeted attacks all too easy -- don't allow for that kind of robotic tinkering. And again, Twitter's intent, from both a user and advertising perspective, is to create the richest experience possible for each individual, regardless of how many use the service. Even if casting off the trolls causes it to lose users (which, in the long-run, it won't), it will have only lost users that harm the platform's long-term ambitions.

To be fair, that's not to say a troll is never aligned with Twitter's business. The importance of celebrities to Twitter cannot be overstated, and sometimes these users can be as abusive as any other. Recently, the rapper Azealia Banks launched into a tirade of homophobic hate against VICE editor Mitchell Sunderland. If Costolo really wants to put his money where his mouth is, he should suspend Banks -- who has over half a million followers -- showing the community that it doesn't matter whether you're a celebrity or a burner account with zero followers: Hate-speech will not be tolerated.

That probably won't happen. But the good news is, celebrities like Banks are anything but anonymous, and her hate-speech is a matter of public record for all to see. (There's almost a greater good element in this fact.) And the vast majority of celebrities, while often terrible and obnoxious for any number of reasons, are not Internet trolls.

Celebrities notwithstanding, I believe Dick C. when he says, "We're going to start kicking these (abusers) off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them." (Sarah Jeong has a post at the Verge theorizing that Twitter is perfectly capable of better policing trolls -- though there's also the fear that these mechanisms could be abused to silence free speech). It's not because I believe Costolo is a decent human being. He seems like a pretty good guy, but that's beside the point -- good intentions mean nothing in the world of billion dollar companies.

No, it's because a Twitter full of trolls is a Twitter that won't make a dime for the company or its advertisers. And the reality is, money has always been the biggest and often only incentive for a company to do good.

[illustration by Hallie Bateman]