Twitter's change of heart is about money, not responsibility
The replacement by Twitter of its star icon with a heart last week sent its most ardent users into a thumbs-down frenzy of only mildly contained #emojirage. Is this really an important media story? Well, it was important for a few hours to people who work in the media, nearly all of whom frequently check Twitter, even if they claim otherwise.
People who wished to register a coolly ironic acknowledgment of a fellow tweeter’s bon mot suddenly found that, instead of the neutral “I see what you are doing there” star, their thumb was hovering over a tiny red love heart.
I found myself not bookmarking, as I would have done a day earlier, a horrifying image retweeted by journalists depicting men using phones to film a woman being stoned to death for adultery. I did not “like” let alone “love” the image but wanted to note it as important. We must have a system that allows for capturing the significant as well as the appealing.
The design change is trivial, but the context for it is not. The rules of engagement and relationship to one another on social platforms are having to be redrawn, for mostly financial and sometimes civic reasons.
What starts with a heart ultimately leads to bigger questions about expression and publication.
Serious news about terrible events calls for a system of language (including visual language) that reflects the gravity or complexity of any given situation. One cannot, for instance, “love” the latest Nasa report on polar ice density, or profess amorous adulation for the news that the Metrojet aircraft that crashed in the Sinai might have been targeted by terrorists.
The red heart reveals that Twitter doesn’t want us to talk about unpleasant things that can’t be loved, even on a casual, fleeting basis.
The inherent tension at the centre of all modern communication businesses, including every news organisation, is that only the likeable is reliably bankable. The relaying of trauma, devastation and cruelty is not inherently profitable in the same way that the relaying of how awesome the new Adele track is or how much we adore kittens might be.
Twitter, despite some indications to the contrary, is not stupid. It recognises that one of the limits to its commercial growth lies in its contentious community.
It is faced with a problem of the utmost complexity: it wishes to deploy a framework for global free expression and, at the same time, erase or moderate the less cheery elements that can make discourse challenging. The changes available to the platform to effect that are simple and universal; hence, to make Twitter nicer, we are blasted with hearts, a passive-aggressive response of love and orderly peace to our untidy world of events.
Commercially successful speech, as opposed to free speech, is by its nature sanitised and purged of both micro and macro aggressions. Twitter’s failure to cope earlier with abusive and threatening behaviour has limited its utility and maybe even its growth, scaring away and exhausting even frequent users. It needs to be a nicer place, for the sake of its share price if not its role in the public sphere.
The proliferation of hate speech and incitement is the malware of open social platforms and, as Jonathan Zittrain pointed out in his book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, malware is attracted to any open system, and the resulting impulse is more often than not to close the system.
In that sense, Twitter’s heart strategy is the first step in moderating the type and tone of discourse on the platform. Coming in the opposite direction, you have Facebook, which is experimenting with emojis other than the straightforward like as it recognises that the range of human expression is essentially nonbinary.
The New York Times recently carried an opinion article, titled The Facebook intifada, in which the author, Micah Lakin Avni, whose father was the victim of a violent attack, describes how the recent wave of violence in Israel and Palestine is enmeshed in exchange and incitement on social platforms.
He writes: “Something new is happening today, and what Facebook, Twitter and the others must realise is that the question of incitement on social media isn’t just a logistical or financial question but, first and foremost, a moral one.”
Women and others who are regularly abused on social media have reason to relate to this framing of responsibility.
Although the question might be a moral one, it is money that will ultimately solve the issue, as data collection on every part of our emotional state brings with it opportunities for monetisation. The rules of 21st- century expression are being set in the product groups of commercial technology companies. We don’t yet have an emoji or icon to denote what we think about that. – © Guardian News & Media 2015