A few days ago, I decided to stop using Twitter. Until recently I tweeted a few times a day — mostly to tell jokes, and to promote my work as a journalist and television writer. I’ve been using it since 2009, and have amassed about 170,000 followers. I like Twitter. Twitter has been good for me, and for my career. But there’s also been plenty of bad and unhealthy. And lately the scales have begun to tip heavily on the side of the negative.
There are a lot of essays out there about quitting Twitter as a lifestyle choice, so I should be clear: I’m not quitting forever. This isn’t an essay about growing up or moving across the country. I’m not quitting because it’s existentially bad for me, or making me a worse person, or ruining my attention span, or because I have poor impulse control, though those are all good reasons to quit.
I’m quitting Twitter for a specific, practical reason: Because I keep getting bothered by assholes and perverts and Twitter doesn’t seem willing or able to do anything about it. I’m quitting Twitter the way you quit your favorite restaurant when it suffers an E. coli outbreak. I’m quitting Twitter for the simple fact that Twitter’s been bumming me out.
Before I get into it, let me just get a few things out of the way so we all feel better. One, Jesus Christ, WHO CARES? Two, there are much, much bigger problems in the world, and there are smaller problems than this one that are marginally more interesting. Three, Twitter’s dumb; the internet’s dumb; I’m dumb; p.c. culture is dumb; I’m a whiny white lady who could stand to lose a few, etc. Go ahead. Get that stuff off your chest. Feel deep.
Let me also establish the subjects I’m not an expert in: constitutional law, mental health, queer theory, digital privacy, corporate responsibility. The list goes on! I’m Not an Expert in an almost impressive number of things related to the issue of online harassment. I’m writing based strictly on personal experience.
Sometime last week, an anonymous user of Twitter tweeted me a poorly Photoshopped image of a box of douches featuring the face of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, with text suggesting that she, and her supporters, have smelly vaginas.
I’ve never publicly stated a preference for any presidential candidate, nor does this guy have any insider knowledge on the conditions of my (frankly rather sparkling) vulvar ambiance. The truth is, aside from the sole fact of my being female and having a face, I’m not much of a good target. I’m not involved with gaming journalism, intense electoral politics, technology. Probably the most controversial stand I’ve taken on anything is being pro-pineapple as a pizza topping. While I have much respect for people who enjoy using Twitter for lively discourse, I mostly just want to make lame jokes.
But when opening the app even just to make a quick joke involves a cost-benefit analysis — “make a joke about oatmeal cookies and potentially see a bunch of swastikas and taints” — well, it’s time to step back. And that’s just for a dumb cookie jokester! Twitter is getting scary and shitty across the board, not just in certain spheres.
It’s not just this guy — I get weird trolls and random Eastern European genitalia tweeted at me all the time. I’m really tired of looking at weird penises every time I want to make a dinosaur joke or see if my ex-boyfriend is alive. This is just a fairly regular thing many of us deal with on social media, particularly if we are women.
So I blocked the user, and reported the incident, using Twitter’s existing abuse protocol. Shortly after, I received an email informing me that the suggestion that a former secretary of State and I both have smelly vaginas did not constitute a violation of Twitter’s terms of service. I posted a screenshot of the email, and a few lines about how I would not be using Twitter until they figured out how to stop making incidents like this one (gross, but comparatively benign) a less constant component of my Twitter experience.
Now, you may be asking yourself: Why don’t you just block, report, and move on? A lot of people on Twitter, particularly white men wearing reflective sunglasses in their avatars, posed more or less this exact question to me. (I don’t mean to sunglass-shame, here; I only point out the fashion situation because it hurts even more to be dismissed by someone cool.)
The answer is: I do. These people — the vagina-smell people — make new accounts. Lots of ‘em. They come back. Which means blocking doesn’t fix the central problem: I don’t want to see aggressive, gross stuff every time I go on Twitter. I just don’t. And, well, as I wrote above, the last time I reported an account to Twitter for aggressive harassment and bad jokes, I was told it wasn’t in violation of Twitter’s terms of service. Okay, fine. Then if that’s not a violation in this space, I’m not sure I want to be in it.
To be clear, multiple Twitter employees were kind enough to reach out to offer me assistance with my particular case, and Twitter eventually sent me an email reversing their decision. One employee also assured me that Twitter is trying to make headway in making its service safer for women — and I’m sure that it is! — but as it stands, the dickheads still have the advantage. Do I think Twitter owes me anything? Nah. It just used to be a fun and pleasant place, which now feels totally inhospitable to women. That’s not a place I want to be.
Let me try to explain how I see it. Twitter is like a beloved public park that used to be nice, but now has a rusty jungle gym, dozens of really persistent masturbators, and a nighttime bat problem. Eventually the Parks Department might rip up the jungle gym, and make some noise about fixing the other problems, because that’s what invisible administrators like Twitter staff and municipal recreation departments tend to do. But if the perverts and the bats got to be bad enough with no recourse, you’d probably just eventually stop going.
(Additionally frustrating is that everybody is complaining about the safety issues at the park, and instead of addressing them, the city installs a crazy new slide. What? Nobody was calling for that. What about the perverts? What about the bats?)
I support public parks, and I support free speech. But getting bombarded with epithets and graphic images does not a love for humanity foster. I don’t know where these beardos got the idea that the First Amendment says, “Do whatever the fuck you want, it’s spring break, bitches.” Why do the laws of order and decency not apply to spaces where other people can’t tell you through basic social cues, or, barring that, Tasing, that you’re being a real asshole?
Technology has essentially ziplined past all the difficult social contract and legal infrastructure and face-to-face accountability that led us to negotiate limits on day-to-day expression. And instead of building any of that stuff, instead of addressing basic concerns of safety and gestalt and culture, our most popular platforms seem more concerned with “Haha”-face buttons and silly new engagement models.
I’d like to shift priorities. I want to elevate the need to address that people (particularly women) are being freely terrorized above whether or not a heart or a star is a more fun shape. And until that happens I can take walks and have picnics somewhere else.