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'Twitter's Dying' Puts Spotlight On The Line Between Abuse And Voice

Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

Twitter has been declared dead many times before.

Last year, The Atlantic published "A Eulogy for Twitter" — the latest of a string of similar proclamations, which in turn spurred a wave of response pieces, analysis pieces and think pieces.

So here we are again.

A lengthy essay titled "Why Twitter's Dying (And What You Can Learn From It)" by author Umair Haque landed on Medium.com on Oct. 13. A week later, it's still one of the site's most popular posts.

Haque's key observation has certainly struck a chord: People are abusing the social Web and companies aren't doing enough to curb it. About Twitter in particular, he writes:

"We once glorified Twitter as a great global town square, a shining agora where everyone could come together to converse. But I've never been to a town square where people can shove, push, taunt, bully, shout, harass, threaten, stalk, creep, and mob you...for eavesdropping on a conversation that they weren't a part of...to alleviate their own existential rage...at their shattered dreams...and you can't even call a cop. What does that particular social phenomenon sound like to you? Twitter couldhave been a town square. But now it's more like a drunken, heaving mosh pit."

Indeed, the stories of Twitter shaming, pile-ons and trolling abound, and many have decided to quit the site. We've all witnessed the Internet's power at spreading misinformation ( Boston bombing suspects) or people being continuously harassed for posting something stupid and offensive ( "Just kidding. I'm white!"), something politically or socially touchy ( "Texas Firearms/Fear Festival"), or for posting while female. (And let's not forget the Gamergate controversy.)

Is Twitter to blame? The site didn't invent the trolls and mean spirits, who have long hidden behind the anonymity of forums and comment sections of the Web. Yet Kathy Sierra, the victim of one of the most famous online harassment cases, wrote this about Twitter in Wired:

"I actually got off easy, then. Most of the master trolls weren't active on Twitter in 2007. Today, they, along with their friends, fans, followers, and a zoo of anonymous sock puppet accounts are. The time from troll-has-an-idea to troll-mobilizes-brutal-assault has shrunk from weeks to minutes. Twitter, for all its good, is a hate amplifier. Twitter boosts signal power with head-snapping speed and strength. Today, Twitter (and this isn't a complaint about Twitter, it's about what Twitter enables) is the troll's best weapon for attacking you."

But let's start with the facts: Twitter is still growing. The company has hit a rough patch recently, flooded with the news of slipping shares, executive shake-up and layoffs. But its most recent corporate results show not a decline in users, but a slowdown in growth: Its worldwide base of monthly active users grew to 304 million at the end of June, from 302 million at the end of March and 288 million at the end of 2014.

And here's a notable element: The vast majority of those, 239 million, are not in the United States.

One of the commenters on Haque's piece, in fact, accused the author of writing from a Western or even U.S.-centric perspective, which do not reflect the value that the social network plays overseas. (Haque's piece begins with an anecdotal analysis of Twitter's thinning ranks from Dupont Circle in Washington, Madison Square in New York City and a cafe in London.)

That same signal-boosting power of Twitter that helps trolls pile up on a victim has helped people organize for political protests around the world, including in places where Internet access is restricted. (Some recent high-profile examples include the Arab Spring, Ukraine's Euromaidan demonstrations, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and Iran's 2009 election protests.)

In the United States, too, Twitter serves a cross-cultural audience: A study by the Pew Research Center this year found that 1 in 5 white Internet users are on Twitter, while 28 percent of black and Hispanic Internet users are on the site.

And the public nature of Twitter (in contrast to Facebook's largely "friend"-based networking) has often amplified diverse voices in transformative ways. (The powerful Black Twitter keeping a spotlight on police misconduct, The New York Times putting the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown story on the front page, the White House inviting for a visit the Texas teenager who was arrested after bringing a homemade clock to school).

Social networks have also allowed people to rally against or in support of positions taken by celebrities and companies, and directly communicate with them or call them out on insensitivity. (See: Benedict Cumberbatch apologizing for the "colored actors" comment, Target's gender-neutral toys, Kenneth Cole's "uproar in Cairo...new spring collection" and DiGiorno Pizza'sdomestic violence & pizza improper hashtag responses.)

Haque defines abuse as broader than violent threats, to also include "endless bickering, the predictable snark, the general atmosphere of little violences that permeate the social web...and the fact that the average person can't do anything about it."

The importance of retribution in cases of online harassment, beyond blocking or ignoring, is hard to overstate. But as with many cases of online speech, one man's bickering and snark is another man's freedom and dialogue:

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.