Shaking Off Weather-Beaten Wings

Constructive ideas for making Twitter a more human platform

It’s been almost two years since I’ve written about improvements I’d make to Twitter. Last time it was about better ways to cover breaking news and I was supportive. My point then was our information tools need to get better at covering real time events because narratives are confusing enough already. Judging by reactions to the recent Olympics coverage, we are still very interested in features that would help us make sense of the fire hose of constant information.

Twitter is an easy punching-bag for design professionals because it’s exciting, content-rich and full of promise. But lately it isn’t just our community that’s taking them to task and definitely not in supportive ways. Charlie Warzel’s piece on BuzzFeed, “A Honeypot For Assholes”: Inside Twitter’s 10-Year Failure To Stop Harassment”, is an unfortunate condemnation but for good reason. According to him,

“…these interviews tell the story of a company that’s been ill-equipped to handle harassment since its beginnings.”

Build for all or just for some?

Twitter has a problem, for sure, but it’s part of a larger trend and once you see it here, you’ll see it all over. Something else happened this year that should put us on our collective toes and inspire the next big, industry think:

VIP by Sayot

Back in June, Twitter launched “Engage” which is a “safe space for celebrities to tweet”. Their standalone app — for influencers — is designed to help the famous people interact with, well, everyone else. Let’s call them the “not-so-famous”. You know what you did.

This new feature set for top influencers clearly demonstrates that celebrity issues matter more than existing issues of online abuse and safety. Even if I accept that celebrities often need and receive special treatment, both sets of issues existed at the same time — and still do — but only one is being addressed with an organized, ongoing effort.

Twitter’s response to problems that everyday users encounter is, in a word: FAQ’d.

https://support.twitter.com/articles/15794
https://blog.twitter.com/2014/anti-bullying-tools-and-resources-on-twitter

I’d love to be wrong, and maybe as I’m writing this, Twitter will launch a new service with a litany of safety and anti-harassment tools.

Finger’s crossed. Please, please let me be wrong.

It’s maddening, and as a heavy user of Twitter, I’d love to see improvements.

Love the effort lately @Safety. But what about tools that borrow from human approaches to reduce abuse and promote safety for everyone? #LetsBuildThat

Technology amplifies human problems by removing the humans

When dealing with human concerns such as safety, digital itself is usually the problem. Online experiences model human behavior, imperfectly, and as a result tend to abstract away defenses and tactics that humans have developed to guard and protect themselves, rendering them exposed. It’s not ideal, but thankfully we can observe and think about what we do in real life to respond to stressful situations and ensure our safety — and then continue to model and build those responses into improved digital experiences.

Here are just a few ideas that could be helpful starting points for real, user-centered efforts to combat abuse and harassment on Twitter:

Twitter bodyguards

Users can help keep each other safe by electing to have other users act as agents on their behalf. When an attack happens, deputize selected users, give out special badges and grant short-term superhero powers.

  • Create Twitter bodyguards that can act defensively to protect certain users — with limited abilities to defend, not attack (reducing, not creating, additional bey swarming)
  • Identify trigger situations when bodyguards are needed the most and relax the ability when not needed.

Respect the limits

In a face-to-face argument, verbal communication is naturally slowed down and restricted by attention, time and distance (you can’t hear all voices at once and voice doesn’t carry great distances).

  • Slow down time by allowing a “cooling off” period between intense or non-normal use.
  • Make some tweets move more slowly or require time to pass before being posted.
  • Fast-forward through tweets and provide visual feedback as to when things return to normal and the argument is more or less finished.

Watchful lifeguarding

Enable soft-barriers around users who create, repeat and follow messaging that is known to be abusive. Other users can access these areas when they are ready, or not at all, but can at least be told when they are venturing into dark waters. Providing users with the ability to know the “depth” of conversation would be a big help.

Escape mode

Just as a real human might leave a threatening situation entirely, let’s enable a user’s account to go into a new mode that replies to all tweets with a calming message, just like an answering machine, while the real user safely exits the situation (or begins damage control). These messages can be stored or auto-generated at the time they are needed and it would be clear to people that the user was no longer around to receive what was being tweeted at them.

Catastrophic molt

When the stress begins, everything must go (“Catastrophic Molt” by Jim Gilbert)

Users might be given novel approaches to cull and replace followers that are genuine, fair and reliable (and real). At the first sign of abuse, all followers are dumped or muted and gradually re-added or un-muted over a period of time with problem accounts being discovered and dealt with. Look to nature for this behavior and get people to try it out with the easiest brand tie-in imaginable: Penguins are birds, too, and pretty damn resilient.

Send and read settings

Allow people to speak to each other on agreed-upon terms and model different conversational conditions. Concepts from email and file sharing such Read-Only / No Reply / Reply All / etc. come into play here.


Do something to help. Everyone.

These suggestions, and others, arguably might make Twitter not so Twitter anymore. But since Twitter is a made-up thing to begin with, why not keep making it better for people?


I’m a User Experience Designer living and working in Singapore.

I write, discuss and photograph as @elbuenob so feel free to follow and reach out to me. I value your thoughts and will do my very best to return your gift of time with a considerable measure of my own. Find me at bschmittling.com and say hello@bschmittling.com.