On Sunday, Elexus Jionde, a 22-year-old history graduate and blogger, posted a series of tweets (later storifyed here) on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, ruminating on America's long history of white nationalist terrorism. As Jionde told Buzzfeed News, she posted the tweets in a connected thread for context, so that each individual tweet could be read alongside the others.
The tweets unpacked three centuries of racism, but when they went viral, Jionde realized that the thread was broken. Divorced of all historical context, Jionde’s first tweet may read as callous or even disrespectful to 9/11 victims.
“I believe Twitter deliberately unconnected the thread to deprive people of context,” Jionde said. “Some will say that it was some sort of system glitch or whatever, but I personally believe they disabled my thread because someone in the office was offended over the first tweet.”
Twitter’s head of communications, Kristin Binns, told BuzzFeed News the company never altered Jionde's posts in any way:
“Keeping conversations intact is very important to us and makes Twitter the dynamic platform that it is,” Binns said. “We can confirm that no proactive measures were taken to remove specific replies from this thread and are looking into this, in the event that a bug may have impacted it.”
As of September 13th, the thread was restored on Twitter's desktop and mobile platforms. But ironically, in Fast Company's October cover story, Twitter's CEO and Co-Founder Jack Dorsey reveals that he prides himself on testing and catching the very bugs that may have disrupted Jionde's thread in the first place.
"I'm really good at QA [quality assurance testing]," he says. "I'm usually the first one to find any bugs, ones that other people aren't seeing. And that's a big part of the details that matters a lot."
In the softball interview, Dorsey outlines what's next for the social network. Twitter is planning to restructure itself around live streaming and video, having recently cut deals with the NBA, NFL, and NHL. Dorsey also spoke on the AI behind Twitter's Moments tool and the company's desire to expand video coverage for Periscope.
"We're not a social network as people think about it," Dorsey says.
Unwittingly, Dorsey reveals the widening gap between how Twitter (the company) sees itself and how people actually use Twitter (the product). This balancing act is pulling the platform in two directions at once, while many users— women of color in particular—are punished for doing exactly what Twitter says they should: speak freely.
When asked about Twitter and "safety" (as opposed to, say, "Twitter and abuse" or "Twitter and harassment"), the CEO said:
"Our hope is that we can be a platform that encourages more civil discourse. Even though people may have views that are at different ends of the spectrum, that they can have a conversation to figure out what the ends of that spectrum are, and if there's a balancing point."
Dorsey maintains that he wants Twitter to become the world leader in instantaneous commentary, accommodating users with divergent, but no less valid, perspectives. But that's Twitter, the company. Twitter, the app, made headlines when Jionde's viral tweets inspired an onslaught of racist abuse.
“I’ve received death threats, racist jokes, and a lot of tweets regarding my future children having cancer," she told Buzzfeed News. "That [first] tweet has since gone viral, and without the 40+ tweets accompanying it, there are people in my mentions telling me that I’m a disgrace to my race and country for saying 9/11 only killed white people, when that isn’t what I said at all.”
Harassment like this continues to be a huge issue for the social network, despite being seen as a powerful agent for social change. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, which has been hugely influential in raising Twitter's profile, was started by women of color—the same people who are most commonly targets of abuse on the site.
In a longform piece, Buzzfeed News's Charlie Warzel reported a long history of Twitter failing to prevent targeted abuse against women, particularly women of color.
"The original sin is a homogenous leadership,” a former employee reportedly told Warzel. “This is part of what exacerbated the abuse problem for sure—because they were often tone-deaf to the concern of users in the outside world, meaning women and people of color.”
While Twitter, as a platform, has been excellent at real-time commentary and mobilizing social activists, the company's leadership remains 76% male and only 10% Black/Latino. It's long been hypothesized that the white insularity of Dorsey and his team is behind its repeated failures to address harassment.
When Leslie Mylie, a former software engineer at Twitter, quit the company, he published a widely circulated Medium post illustrating a widening gulf between Twitter's potential and its reality.
"During my time at Twitter I experienced the pride and sense of purpose on seeing #Ferguson and #blacklivesmatter on the most prominent wall at Twitter HQ. This is something I will never forget. And yet there were moments that caused me to question how and why a company whose product has been used as an agent of revolutionary social change did not reflect the diversity of thought, conversation, and people in its ranks."
As Twitter moves to its next stage as a platform, it will be interesting to see if it can reconcile these perspectives and finally practice what its CEO has been preaching to the media.
"We want to make sure that people feel safe to express themselves freely, and for us that means that we’re providing really crisp and clear tools so that people can report, and people can mute, and people can block,” Dorsey says. Though he's well intentioned, Dorsey is off the mark to think this is simply a technical problem. It’s a social problem that needs a substantive, top-down social solution.