Twitter can solve harassment right now with verified accounts

the awesome lizzy caplan in Mean Girls

Dick Costolo wrote a heartfelt mea culpa this week to his staff on the harassment and trolling issue. It’s a paradoxical moment because no company has ever built as sophisticated a harassment policy and tool set as Twitter — yet they still have trolling issues.

In this piece I’ll explain three things: first, why Twitter has this problem and Facebook doesn’t; second, how Twitter can solve this issue today (literally, by the end of the day); and third, why “Verified Twitter” would print money for Twitter.

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Why Twitter Has A Trolling Problem: Pseudonyms

On Twitter you can do the following today:

  1. You can block people: If you do this they can’t follow your tweets and you don’t see them — and they know you’ve blocked them.
  2. You can mute people: If you mute people you never see them but they don’t know you’ve blocked them.
  3. You can set your account to private, in which case only your friends will see your tweets.

B.F. Skinner would be touched by number two, as it’s a clear hat tip to “extinction behaviors.” Blocking someone (#1) is a form of reinforcement of bad behavior, and I’ve seen that people who block each other are actually engaging a deeper, usually twisted relationship. Psychologists would have a field day with these things.

Of course, if you create @jasonisafatgreekbastard and I block you there is nothing stopping you from creating @youfatbastardjason the very next hour.

This is because Twitter is an open platform that allows pseudonyms — a.k.a., “a name you made up that is not your legal name.”

Facebook on the other hand does not allow pseudonyms. You have to be your real self, and they encourage their members to report fake handles. This is why Facebook doesn’t have as pervasive of a trolling issue, and when they do it gets handled quickly (i.e., someone reports another person to the police).

On Twitter you have to report a pseudonym to the police, which isn’t exactly worth anything. You’re basically firing off a cyber sleuthing mission: get us the IP addresses and we can subpoena the ISP to find out who is bullying you.

On Facebook you can call the cops and say “Jason Calacanis said he is going punch me in the face and here is a print out!” and the cops can take action without calling the computer crimes division.*

[ * Note: A person told me, they said jokingly, that they would punch me in the face, on Twitter. I called them on the phone and told them “I assume you’re joking, but you shouldn’t make those kind of jokes because I could call the police and they would actually visit you and you would have a record.” The person apologized, we all moved on. ]

How Twitter Can Solve the Problem of Trolling

Twitter has a neat feature called “Verified Accounts” which you’ve seen but maybe never noticed: the little blue check mark next to famous or notable people’s names. This was a way for Twitter in the early days, when folks did a lot of fake accounts with celebrity names, to let the public know, “You are actually talking to Ashton Kutcher or President Obama.”

Twitter should allow folks to have a 4th privacy option: “Verified Accounts Only.” In this version you would pay a nominal fee (say $1 on your credit card every year; or maybe $5 or $10 for life) to have your identity verified. They could also verify your mailing address by sending you a postcard like Nextdoor and other services do (which has a three digit code on it, so when you receive it in the mail you type that in and AT LEAST Twitter would know you lived at this address).

Over time real people would move to verified accounts, while comedy accounts like the Goldman Sachs Elevator (@gselevator), @StartupLJackson and the hilarious @SwiftOnSecurity would be non-verified.

Everyone would see a clear button when they signed up:

“Show me only verified accounts” or “Show me everyone”

When you clicked on “Show me everyone,” a disclaimer would come up:

“By selecting ‘Show me everyone’ you are going to see accounts that are anonymously published that we have no way of tracking. These accounts can include fun content like anonymous parodying of celebrities or political accounts that publish anonymously for fear of being prosecuted. However, anonymous content can also include very offensive humor, nudity, political incorrectness, graphic images, and worse. By clicking this you are agreeing to, essentially, seeing an R-rated (and sometimes X-rated) film. No judgements either way.”

Button one: Yes, I’m cool with adult stuff and free speech that I might disagree with.

Button two: No thanks, I’d like to exist in a world where people own their words.

Verified Twitter is a Gold Mine

Now, verified twitter doesn’t only solve for trolling. It would also be a money-printing machine.

Four things to keep in mind as we wrap up:

a/Hating on Twitter for building an open platform with sophisticated tools to protect people is unfair. Anonymity cuts boths ways, and you have the tools in your power today to exist on Twitter with a pseudonym-based account or a protected account. You shouldn’t be on “open Twitter” if you have thin skin or you are a target — you should be on Facebook or have a protected account on Twitter.

b/That being said, Twitter has built such a sophisticated system that they could make “Real People Twitter” an overnight success this month.

c/Twitter verified accounts could be a huge revenue stream for Twitter. I would charge businesses $100 to have their business verified (making a $75 profit in the process) but give each account a $100 credit in the ad network — BOOM!!! That would drive massive adoption of their ad platform.

d/Twitter will convert 25% of their active user base to verified accounts when they execute this plan (and I’m certain they will do this in 2015). That’s 75 million credit cards. Can you imagine what effect having 75m credit cards would have on buying stuff on Twitter? The NYTimes, Netflix, Amazon, and tens of thousands of retailers could start closing deals with one/two/three-click purchases. Wow.

Tomorrow’s Post: How Twitter can double their Active Users in six months.