Twitter (or any other social networking site) will fail if they refuse to enforce their TOS.
An article in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer about the school district provided me with an excellent metaphor for how Twitter’s lack of maturity can set back the entire realm of social media by about 5 to 10 years.
Here’s the lowdown of what is happening in the Philadelphia School District: They don’t discipline. They had 5,000 incidents last year that would be considered crimes outside the school, some felony level, but 2006 is the last year they expelled anyone. The district seems to have an unwritten policy to never police its schools, contrary to the written “Terms of Service” (TOS), known in schools as ‘the discipline code’. The small minority of violent students, never punished nor expelled for their crimes, make the entire school system unusable for the law abiding majority.
If you have a big city with unsafe schools, what happens?
You guessed it: Brain Drain. College educated people move out because they seek a safer educational experience for their children. School drop out rates increase. The population of the city is less and less educated and employable. The economy falters and suffers. The die-hard high income city lovers move out. The city drops in the ‘liveable city’ rankings… the decline goes on until some sort of major change happens.
The secret of the un-policed state of the Philadelphia schools is out. What was once our own private dirty laundry is now on national display. This means we won’t be fooling any of the other cities’ best and brightest to come our way. Philadelphia will be dead.
This same story is happening on many beta-release social media sites. Like parents of victims of violent students in the Philly school district, users on ‘wild west’ un-policed sites have no recourse when another user is abusing the terms of service.
Recently, when a person was trolling and stalking women with abusive messages on their service, Twitter was at sea. Someone started a complaint thread on a third-party customer service website (that Twitter hired). Starting a thread on a completely different site’s forum is the only possible chance to reach Twitter. This thread is a public area where everyone with a web connection can see your complaint. What if your complaint is that someone is threatening you with physical harm? After reporting it to the real life police, the first thing you would want to do is to contact Twitter privately to let them know what was happening. Guess what? There is no way to contact Twitter privately. You’d be on your own, with real life police asking for a way to see the proof you can’t officially provide.
Ok back to the thread. The abusive person came onto the 3rd party website forum and spewed more vitriol. What happened? The forum’s administrator threatened to ban him and delete all his comments in the thread. Now that’s policing. Swift and clear. That’s the kind of action that enterprise feels protects them from messy situations that may lead to litigation. In essence, policing helps an enterprise’s economy.
On the thread, Twitter first responded that they were not going to take any action against the user, which basically meant that they were refusing to enforce their own TOS. After a long and ridiculous arguments by various users, someone at Twitter came to their senses and banned almost all of the offending user’s multiple accounts on Twitter. (Who knows went through their head. I doubt that someone had the foresight to see a major FAIL ahead, like the horrendous FAIL and brain drain that is happening in Philly.)
Users have to feel safe, or they won’t use your product. Period. They will move over other, more policed services or they will leave the area (i.e. social media) entirely. Then your company’s venture capital will run out, you will be out of a job, the internet advertisers won’t get their money, and the business sector will happily ignore you and your next big idea. It is happening in Philadelphia. It will happen to you.
So, if you want to be a grown up, get a lawyer to write a solid and clear TOS, then enforce it. This is what successful businesses have done for centuries. Enforcing a good TOS will save you a lot more in litigation fees than not enforcing your TOS. Ask anybody.
So, let’s think about the steps a social media site needs to take in order to succeed:
1. Write a TOS.
2. Enforce it.
3. Have a way for users to contact you privately about TOS violations.
4. Advertise via word-of-mouth or otherwise that you have a safe environment and you enforce your TOS.
5. Write a manual about how to enforce the TOS and make it shiny to show off to CEO’s.
6. Sell the container to big business.
7. Sell ads to big business.
Seriously. What is so hard?