A Technical Way Out of the Twitter Abuse Problem

Here’s an alternative: Twitter should re-open its API.

Following the hideous trolling and abuse piled on people like Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy last week, there has been much debate over how Twitter as a company could solve the problem.1

Much of the chat has centred around the idea of a ‘Report Abuse’ button…  but I have my misgivings.  The risk of such a feature, is that mobs of idealogues will co-ordinate to report as ‘abuse’ those Tweeters with whom they disagree.  And celebrities with a large following will be able to ask their fans to report genuine critics as ‘abuse’.  This Flashboy post critiques the proposal in more detail.

Here’s an alternative:  Twitter should re-open its API.

One of the reasons Twitter became so successful is that it previously had a very open Application Programming Interface (API).  Third-parties could develop mobile phone apps and online tools that used Twitter’s platform. It was very easy to write your own Twitter reader, put Tweets on your own site, or perform hundreds of other functions with the bite-sized messages flowing through the system.

However, in recent months, Twitter has closed-off its API.  It has less functionality for third-party apps than before, and developing new applications on top of the system is much harder.  The company did this mainly because it needs to monetise its service – It does not want Tweets appearing in places where it cannot place advertisements.

However, a return to a more open API would allow many different developers to solve the Twitter abuse problems in a way that makes sense to the myriad communities they serve. A start-up interested in creating communities for teens, or kids, could create a messaging system for Twitter which simply ignores trolls in the timeline.  Someone else might apply an intelligent filter to tweets and foreground those that are deemed ‘safe’.  Still others could develop the idea of a curated block-list, or the panic mode (two other ideas that have attracted a lot of discussion).

This would seem to be a more sensible way to begin tackling the problem, than by expecting Twitter to develop, implement and maintain an ‘abuse button’ itself.  The company may lose some advertising revenues through this openness, but that is better than losing users to the sanctuary of Facebook.


1. I’ve written and spoken before how online bullying and abuse is a problem. Its a weak argument to say that free speech trumps everything and people should have thicker skins, because the result would be the flight of women, ethnic minorities, and dissenting voices from the Internet.

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