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(un) Police State of Social Media

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?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Rick Wolff 19 May 2008, 10:14 pm

    I assume you saw that video I pointed you at, of Clay Shirky’s address to the Web 2.0 conference. He described the utopian hands-off attitude on a particular “alt” discussion group in the pre-Web days of the Internet. And how indelible was the negative example among those who experienced it, that at least, they all said to each other, nobody will ever let anything like this happen ever again. Goes to show you.

  • Farouq Taj 20 May 2008, 3:35 am

    There is a similar problem with schools in the UK where the Local Education Authority (LEA) is responsible for the provision of education. If they expel unruly pupils they have a legal responsibility to provide an, expensive, alternative education for the expelled pupil. If they don’t there’s no shortage of solicitors (Lawyers) who are willing to assist the parents in suing the LEA.

    Local authorities would rather let a school rot and avoid paying for the cost of expelling pupils. You’ve, quite rightly, identified the long-term consequences of this. The authorities only work in 12 month budget cycles. So they don’t see nor care about the long term effects.

    I’m not sure what the solution is other than to raise awareness of this problem.

    Regarding idiots on social media sites; a site becomes increasingly difficult to moderate and control as user numbers increase. It is a balancing act between making a site accessible with easier registration for new users and enforcing the TOS.

    My suggestion is once the community has grown beyond a certain size then introduce a membership policy which requires a token credit card purchase of say $1. This will provide a form of verification so that legal action can be taken against an individual should the need arise. At the moment it is all too easy to setup a Twitter account using false information.

  • PurpleCar 22 May 2008, 4:03 pm

    Thanks for commenting, guys!

    Rick, I did watch Clay’s speech. *sigh* Well, we have a few years to go.

    Farouq, an alternative school or schools is necessary for districts to survive, and policing is necessary for websites to survive. Policing can be slow as molasses, as long as it exists. Users are patient if they think they will have a response at the end of the tunnel. Having no light and having no tunnel is a major mistake.

    See Ariel’s post about the same Twitter silliness:

  • PurpleCar 22 May 2008, 10:58 pm

    Here is a reply from Biz Stone, an employee of Twitter, to another thread at Get Satisfaction! about harassment and abuse at Twitter:

    “Biz Stone Official Rep, replied 1 hour ago
    We’re upset that Ariel is having such a bad experience with Twitter. She’s been a long term user of ours and a great advocate of our service. Also, it’s clear that folks here are interested and concerned about how we at Twitter react to content issues like this.

    Something to keep in mind is that we’re discussing content that has not been shared here. This account is no longer available for review because the person who created it willingly removed it back in March. We reviewed this account at the time of the complaint and did not find it in violation of our Terms.

    The fact that so many of us can have differing opinions without having even reviewed the content we’re discussing highlights the difficulty of this issue. In fact, Twitter recognizes that it is not skilled at judging content disputes between individuals. Determining the line between update and insult is not something that Twitter nor a crowd would do well.

    We have deleted accounts for more straightforward violations of the existing Terms. That being said, we are engaged in an editorial review of those Terms to make it more clear what actions we will and won’t take. Essentially, Twitter is a communication utility, not a mediator of content.

    It’s great that everyone’s talking about this because it helps us make important decisions. After all, Twitter is a new medium that we’re all figuring out as we go.

    🙂 I’m thankful
    *The company and 7 other people say this solves the problem ”

    This is me again, PC: Twitter keeps saying that they ‘don’t know’ what harassing is, that they can’t sit around and settle disputes between users. This may or may not be true, but it would behoove them to construct a semblance of propriety. In other words, they need to try. This lame excuse of ‘we can’t do it nor could we figure out what is abuse and what is commentary’ is crap. It wouldn’t stand up in court and it definitely isn’t being bought in the court of public opinion now.

  • Ben Greenberg (@minorjive) 23 May 2008, 2:12 am

    Good post about twitter. I whole heartedly agree with you analysis of twitter’s disappointing and I would say sexist behavior.

    I don’t much like the article that you’re using for your analogy, though. It seems full of stereotypes and biases that I would rather not mix up with an understanding of Twitter’s unwillingness to protect its users and uphold its TOS.

  • PurpleCar 23 May 2008, 8:11 am

    Ben, thanks for commenting. You have a point about the op-ed article that I referenced about the Philadelphia School District, but what it says about the uniform policy of anti-discipline is true. For whatever legal or otherwise reason, the school district is loathe to expel even the most violent (i.e. criminal) children.

  • topgold 2 March 2009, 3:44 am

    I teach freshmen in a small college in Ireland. Because it’s a Internet Social Networking course, I don’t mind if they use Twitter or Jaiku during class. In fact, some of their tweets have provided excellent 360 degree feedback and opportunities for peer review.

    • PurpleCar 2 March 2009, 8:39 pm

      Hey TG. I caught your comment although this post is from last year. Did you want to talk about social network use in class?