Twitter is preparing to introduce new measures to reduce the visibility of “hate speech” or “trolling” on the site.
But management faces a struggle to balance some Twitter users’ desire for anonymity and free speech – such as contributed to the Arab Spring protests – with the wish of others to be protected against abuse.
Talking to the FT this week, Dick Costolo, Twitter’s chief executive, became visibly emotional as he described his frustration in tackling the problem of “horrifying” abuse while maintaining the company’s mantra that “tweets must flow”.
One technical approach Twitter is considering would hide from users’ page of replies any tweets directed at them by individuals who are not seen as “authoritative”, because they have no followers, no biographical information and no profile picture.
But the company’s management is also painfully aware that this could diminish open exchange on the site and undermine Twitter’s long-held commitment to free speech.
People may also as a result miss the “beautiful serendipity” of a fan who joins Twitter just to show their support for a sportsperson or celebrity, Mr Costolo said.
“The reason we want to allow pseudonyms is there are lots of places in the world where it’s the only way you’d be able to speak freely,” he said.
“The flipside of that is it also emboldens these trolls … how do you make sure you are both emboldening people to speak politically but making it OK to be on the platform and not endure all this hate speech? It’s very frustrating.”
After the celebrated use of Twitter and other social networks by protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries to marshal movements against repressive regimes, the Middle East has become one of the site’s fastest-growing regions.
But at the same time, online abuse of celebrities and bullying on social networks has become a more prominent issue in other markets, with a number of recent court cases in the UK prompting the government to propose tackling “trolling” through its new defamation bill.
Twitter faces this issue at a time when the site is transforming itself from a primarily text-messaging service to an open platform that encompasses richer media content.
“What you’ll see us do more and more as a platform is allow third parties to build into Twitter,” Mr Costolo said, explaining that each tweet can become “a caption for some kind of canvas”.
Twitter’s platform today still falls short of the sophisticated applications developers can build in Facebook, a feature increasingly demanded by advertisers. But the site is opening up new ways for other companies to create richer experiences within the tweets themselves, Mr Costolo said.
For example, Twitter has recently introduced “expanded tweets”, which show headlines and photos from a news story when a user shares a link. It also added the ability to watch YouTube videos without leaving its site.
In future, tweets could incorporate polls or quizzes, while the British band Blur will next month debut new songs in a short concert video streamed on Twitter.
Third parties also have a role to play in making sense of the cacophony of noise that often erupts around live events, when Twitter’s open, real-time nature comes into its own.
Earlier this month, Twitter joined with Nascar, the motor racing event, to create a page of the most interesting tweets from drivers, fans, reporters and sponsors around the race, selected by a dozen Twitter employees.
But Mr Costolo insists that Twitter does not want to compete with traditional media companies. “I think that Twitter is increasingly breaking the news, but I don’t think of us as a news organisation because we don’t and won’t employ journalists,” he said. “There will be some events where we will partner with existing media companies.”
Other media or events companies will be able to create a “hashtag” page highlighting the best tweets, as Twitter itself did with Nascar, he said, whether for a live TV show or individual conferences.
“I don’t want us to be in the business of doing all that ourselves – it’s not scaleable.”