It used to be that Twitter was an open forum for anybody to share whatever was on their mind. But Twitter’s recent announcement of their “mute” feature, basically giving users the power to silence noisy tweeters without having to unfollow or block them, that ability to freely share is being hindered at the expense of the personal freedoms of speech Twitter espouses to represent.
Twitter “explicitly concluded that it wants to be a platform for democracy rather than civility,” Jeffrey Rosen wrote in the New Republic. Free speech was the bedrock of this new social platform.
Pre-mute days, Twitter was like the Hunger Games. You follow the folks you wanted to follow, and if they got annoying, you unfollowed them. Limitations forced users to work within the infrastructure of Twitter — if you wanted more followers, you were brief and witty. If you were unfollowed it was probably because of a rant, or you overshared, or you tweeted about a sandwich. It was that cut-throat.
The new micro-blogging experience of sharing thoughts in 140 characters revolutionized the strength of the little guy, assisting in revolutions during the Arab Spring, providing vital communications in the midst of civil unrest, and giving an outlet to creative people that normally would not have had access to such a platform.
Unlike Facebook, Twitter was never about friendships — but rather conversations, engaging with folks in real time and asking them to engage with you. That’s why, for most unprotected profiles, you can freely respond or favorite a tweet of somebody you don’t follow.
Twitter attempted to separate the noise from the “legit” when they started verifying accounts. The blue check mark, now a feature on most social platforms, was supposed to indicate the actual account of a celebrity, notable person, or brand.
But from a quick glance at anyone who works at any given major media company, it’s pretty clear that those little blue checks are being bought or people at Twitter are playing favorites. There’s no numbers on this (of course), but how many of the people you see with blue check marks do you actually know? Likely very few.
So now the “mute” button, which soon will be available to all Twitter users, swoops in to straighten things out, in theory.
It sounds great — you can mute someone that’s live tweeting an event, spewing forth an endless rant, or what have you. But what that mute is actually doing is giving users the right to silence freedom of speech, in a very passive-aggressive way. Mashable’s Adario Strange wrote, “The feature will also be a boon for many business people who use the service, as it allows you to pay someone you’ve networked with the courtesy of a follow on Twitter, even if you’d rather not consume the content in their Twitter stream.”
What good is that courtesy follow if you aren’t actually following their feed? That’s like agreeing to go on a date, but only if the dude Skypes you from the restaurant.
Just look at the banner atop about.twitter.com: “Twitter helps you create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.”
Without barriers? Isn’t silencing — a.k.a. ignoring somebody you purport to support by following them — a means of creating a barrier?
“We value the reputation we have for defending and respecting the user’s voice,” Alexander Macgillivray, Twitter’s former chief lawyer, told the New York Times in 2012. “We think it’s important to our company and the way users think about whether to use Twitter, as compared to other services.”
If what Mr. Macgillivray told the New York Times is correct, then Twitter clearly thinks by silencing a user is a way of showing them respect. In fact, Twitter has respected the voice of users so much that it views threats of rape and murder as “not in violation of Twitter rules,” the initial response media critic Anita Sarkeesian received after multiple threats were sent to her via Twitter, as highlighted in this New Yorker piece. Twitter holds the voices of potential rapists in such high esteem, yet that dude talking about what he had for lunch is the real criminal.
You’re probably thinking, “Calm down, it’s just Twitter.” You’re partly right, a lot of the noise out there is just that, noise.
But just imagine what would have happened if those Egyptians protesting during the Arab Spring had been muted; they wouldn’t have been able to share vital information that the State Department praised them for doing. Or how about the protests over the Iranian presidential election in 2009? Twitter was the only way many were able to communicate because of restricted mobile service, but now, what’s going to stop us from just muting those silly protesters dying for democracy?
I choose the noise.
Companies change and so do their strategies. Twitter is more of a game now than anything else, more about followers — often purchased — and perception than about actual engagement.
Personally, as a writer, I use it to share my work, my voice, my way of thinking. I’m asking for the public engagement of my work, and I follow others that I support because I want to engage with them, not just have them on a list because I need more “friends.”
By seriously diminishing the foundation of Twitter’s “without barriers” motto, Twitter is trying to have it all and not piss off people at the same time, a path that could have serious consequences for their brand and freedom of speech.