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The Paradox at the Heart of Twitter

If the platform is constantly evolving, why won’t it let users do the same?

Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Image

There is something wrong at the heart of Twitter.

Just ask Sarah Jeong. The tech journalist was recently announced as the New York Times’ newest editorial board member. No sooner had the news gone out than internet users on the right exhumed some of her long-buried tweets and accused her of racism against white people. In reality, Jeong’s tweets were flippant remarks mimicking and mocking white people who’d falsely claimed discrimination. She apologized, nonetheless. “I can understand how hurtful these posts are out of context, and would not do it again,” she wrote in a statement. Seeing the controversy as entirely manufactured, the Times stood by its new hire.

Or ask James Gunn. Gunn was slated to direct the next installment of the Guardians of the Galaxy film franchise when alt-right provocateur Mike Cernovich (who also promoted the “pizzagate” conspiracy) posted some of Gunn’s old tweets. Years ago, Gunn had made objectively offensive jokes about pedophilia and child molestation. Amidst the furor, Gunn admitted that his comments were vile and intentionally provocative, and he apologized for them. “I am very, very different than I was a few years ago,” he said in a statement. His employer took a different route than the Times, however. Disney Films fired Gunn, over the protestations of Guardians cast members.

By now, these stories (i.e. getting “milkshake duck”-ed) come as little surprise to anyone who spends much time online. For years, celebrities, journalists, politicians — and of course, regular users — have been publicly and often mercilessly shamed for things their past selves have posted online.

It’s so common that the Times actually went through nearly the exact same thing earlier this year, when tech journalist Quinn Norton was shamed for racist and homophobic remarks she made years ago. The Times agreed with Norton’s critics, and the two parties agreed to go their separate ways. There was a key difference between the Jeong case and Norton’s, of course: the validity of the complaints. As Amanda Hess wrote this past weekend at the New York Times Magazine, “there are those who lack institutional power because of discrimination, and then there are those who are kept out of polite society because they are amoral ghouls. The true nature of a mob becomes a lot clearer once you differentiate between the two.”

By now, these stories come as little surprise to anyone who spends much time online.

At the Washington Post, Megan McArdle (no stranger to saying controversial things) suggested introducing a “statute of limitations” on tweets, to prevent the amoral ghouls from consuming their prey. Others, like Emily Dreyfuss at Wired, have opted for a wholesale deletion strategy, eliminating a searchable past and thereby (mostly) protecting themselves from anyone searching for material — ghoulish or not.

“When Facebook introduced its timeline-style News Feed, arranging your live events from ‘Born’ to the present day, a number of users assumed old private messages had been exposed — their wall-to-wall public conversations were carried out in such a different context that they couldn’t believe they’d posted them in the open,” John Herrman wrote at the Awl back in 2015, as part of his reasoning for regularly deleting his Twitter posts, and concluding that — as he put it — “time is a privacy setting.”

In some ways, he’s still correct. Time — the distance it us from others or, in this case, ourselves — is, or was, the surest protection against things that are best left forgotten. Yet, as Hermann also pointed out, Twitter doesn’t allow for control over the past — not even as much as Facebook does. On Facebook, user timelines are long, but unless you’re willing to scroll forever, it’s difficult to unearth long-forgotten posts (though, of course, users can download their own data and see everything), and it offers an option to make past posts private to friends. On Twitter, there is no way to edit previous posts en masse to make them invisible, and no easy way to delete them altogether.

Twitter’s advanced search is inherently de-contextualizing — it’s designed to find needles in a haystack, not to seek out the deeper nuances of people’s personalities.

In fact, Twitter does just the opposite. A key feature of these recurring scandals is that it’s incredibly easy to find things people on Twitter said years ago. In fact, it’s so easy that people regularly find old tweets from public figures that directly contradict their current positions (see: Donald Trump). People unearth these old tweets not necessarily to tarnish someone’s reputation as those who attacked Jeong and Gunn tried to do, but as an easy drive-by dragging to net a few retweets and likes.

It’s such an easy move because Twitter does something else Facebook doesn’t: it allows for an advanced search. On its help page, Twitter explains how to use search and advanced search, but why? Notionally, the feature is most useful for businesses who want to refine their marketing strategy, determine the reach of a campaign, figure out where it seemed to land best and worst, and even track competitors. But this tool, ostensibly for marketing, has introduced a paradox at the heart of Twitter: a platform of immediacy is also an everlasting archive.

As a tool for marketers and advertisers to track hashtags and pinpoint whether their campaign has trended in the right places and amongst the right demographic, Twitter’s advanced search is inherently de-contextualizing; it’s designed to find needles in a haystack, not to seek out the deeper nuances of people’s personalities. It’s a tool for seeing a snapshot, but not for understanding the surroundings. And, as a business device, it serves its purpose. But when those search parameters are placed around someone’s life in other ways, the results — as we have seen — can often be deeply flawed.

On Tuesday, a new Twitter scandal hit. This time, in a variation on the theme, Twitter refused to ban conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, as major tech firms like Apple and Facebook did, for the offensive things he has said on it. The platform’s VP of Trust and Safety, Del Harvey, posted a blog highlighting some of the ways Twitter’s rules have recently changed regarding offensive speech.

Atop her post, Harvey called Twitter’s rules “a living document,” the suggestion being that the platform is constantly evolving. It’s a nice thought, but unfortunately not one Twitter has found a way to extend to some of its users: the idea that, given time and shifting context, change is possible. That we don’t always have to be what we once were.


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