On Friday, Milo Yiannopoulos, Breitbart News’s chief video-game and gender-issues columnist, lost his “verified badge” — the blue check mark Twitter provides to prominent Twitter users like celebrities, journalists, and venture capitalists to confirm that their bad tweets are actually coming from their terrible fingers and not those of parodists or imitators. “I’ve been sat on the naughty table!” he tweeted Friday afternoon, attaching a screenshot of the email from Twitter, which declined to explain why his account would no longer sport the flair that graces leading accounts like Spencer Pratt’s and Charmin’s.
The disappeared verification has turned into an ongoing controversy. Yiannopoulos’s eager and devoted fans have refashioned their accounts in imitation of his, an attempt to illustrate how easy it would be to impersonate him if he no longer had the blue check mark. #JeSuisMilo was trending over the weekend. Prominent venture capitalists like Jason Calacanis and Marc Andreessen tweeted in support of Yiannopoulos. At some point, a petition was formed at WhiteHouse.gov: “We petition the Obama administration to issue a statement demanding the restoration of Milo Yiannopoulos’s Twitter verification badge.” The incident was covered by the tech press: “Twitter Unverifies Writer Amid Speech Wars,” wrote BuzzFeed. “Twitter crackdown on hate speech backfires,” the CNN headline read.
What a silly and impoverished conversation! To the extent that “speech” is really in play at all, Twitter’s decision to de-verify Yiannopoulos isn’t at all about suppressing it. It’s about whether it wants to be seen as supporting or associating itself with a kind that has earned an enormous amount of criticism from an influential audience. Yiannopoulos, best known for his disquisitions in support of Gamergate, positions himself when convenient as a cheeky provocateur, and is quick to hide behind claims of satire and humor when confronted about his racist or sexist jokes. His fanbase is nasty and obsessive and prone to endlessly (and threateningly) harassing anyone Yiannopoulos turns on in his columns or tweets, as Holly Wood/@girlziplocked wrote on Medium last week. It goes without saying that Twitter wouldn’t want to attach any kind of official-looking seal to his account — especially when a huge number of people are constantly complaining about it.
But this is what happens when you say you stand “for freedom of expression” (as Twitter founder Jack Dorsey has) and also create an implicitly tiered system like “verification” that creates the appearance of approval.
By calling itself “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party,” Twitter has consistently positioned the company as a kind of digital town square, and driven every user policy decision into the realm of “speech wars.” And it’s unfortunately true that in many ways, Twitter fulfills the traditional function of being a gathering place for the free exchange of ideas. But when you subcontract the provision and maintenance of a town square to a corporation, it’s not going to be run like a town square (and all the good and bad that that entails). It’s going to be a run like a mall.
And make no mistake: Twitter is a mall. Its function is to entice people to spend time in it so that they can be sold something. I don’t mean this pejoratively, necessarily. I love Spencer’s Gifts and Auntie Anne’s! And, in many cases, malls can be good places to hold quiet conversations about politics between friends. But if you make people uncomfortable — if you yell or harass or loudly and consistently express political opinions far outside the tolerance of the mall’s customer base — eventually, mall cops on Segways will show up to demand your ID and hustle you out, maybe permanently.
The underlying problem is not just that Twitter is a single for-profit service with a specific culture and community, but that it’s been allowed outsize importance in (a portion of) the public conversation. At the Awl, John Herrman writes that Twitter has become, for journalists, “a major part of their jobs” and “a context,” which helps get at how key the service has become for many professional writers and reporters. I’d go further and suggest that Twitter has done what Facebook has always threatened to do and “become the internet” — the central and fundamental point of contact with everything online — for many different loud, influential, and volatile segments of the population, including journalists, activists, venture capitalists, tech workers, and otaku extremists.
In which case: No wonder we talk about the removal of flair as a speech issue! What started as a casual messaging service and a media-tech playground has now become, for a large and powerful segment of the population, the essential space online for public discourse. Somehow we’ve decided that the best place to talk about gender representation in video games is the mall! And now we are discussing whether or not the mall has an adequate commitment to free speech, or whether it’s a given woman’s own fault that she’s being followed around the mall by groups of jeering teenagers. This is self-evidently horrible.
So here’s a good, dumb idea: There should be a “public option” social network. The open web exists as a public and largely protected space, but it lacks the convenience or centralization of Twitter or other social networks. Let’s build one! A public, open, convenient, centralized social network, dedicated to freedom of expression protected by the First Amendment. The Postal Service — one of the great achievements in networking in U.S. history, lately underfunded, overlooked, and abused — can run it. Yes, it will be bad and slow and janky and bureaucratic; and yes, it will end up being about as much a true public square (and about as loud and exasperating) as Times Square. But at least we’ll be saved the embarrassment of reconciling freedom of expression and verification status in a mall. Because right now, the way we’ve allowed the internet to develop over the last decade-plus, the mall is still the best place to have conversations.