“Communicating with people you may or may not know in real life just got easier,” says Twitter Senior Software Engineer Nhu Vuong’s blog post announcing the most substantial change yet to Twitter's direct messaging system. On April 20th the company revealed that its platform now allows users to accept Direct Messages (DMs) from any other user.
Before this change, users had to follow each other in order to swap DMs. The presumption was that people who want to privately communicate already know each other well enough to exchange follows, which makes sense given that Twitter is infamous for being home to a burgeoning number of Internet trolls.
A recent example is the Gamergate scandal that occurred in 2014. Several female figures of the online game culture were relentlessly harassed and threatened by users who never faced any consequences from Twitter or the law. Twitter’s CEO Dick Costolo knows that this has been an area of failure, even admitting in an internal memo, “We suck at dealing with abuse…We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.”
So why, then, is the company making it seemingly easier for trolls to get their kicks? Before answering that, let’s be fair and make it clear that this is an optional feature that users need to change manually.
To give Twitter even more credit, you can also block any user who abuses the new feature and harasses you. Twitter is also flagging redundant messages sent to multiple people as “spam activity” and locking DMs for users who spam others.
Although these are appropriate actions to take, the truth is that it may not be enough. Twitter hasn’t addressed a way to identify users who create multiple accounts for harassment or spam, which makes locking a single account useless. It also hasn’t addressed the fact that this feature is simply unwanted by the majority of the community.
The reasons behind the change, however, are simple. Twitter is a public company beholden to many people, and competitors such as WhatsApp and Facebook already allow unsolicited private communication. Obviously the platform wants to stay relevant, and the most powerful users on Twitter represent some of its shareholders’ favorites: brands.
Until April 20th, we needed to follow our followers in order to communicate with them. Now all comments, complaints and questions can take place out of the public eye, and the exchange of personal information is much easier (think about all of those “surprise and delights”).
However, many users in the tech and media industries have already speculated that this change will increase abuse through DMs. Several have noted that Costolo has not yet enabled the feature.
Finally, an item that we feel warrants the most consideration but is something that no one has talked about in coverage we’ve seen is that people outside our industry will inevitably find out why their DMs have been changed. Will they not care that the reason a stranger is harassing them from dozens of accounts is because every would-be Walmart wants to ease customer service through theirs? Doubtful.
Unless you’re a brand that is completely inundated with @-mentions, it’s not too difficult to navigate responses on Twitter. We can un-follow the user we’re helping after their concerns have been resolved, and no one has to opt-in to what is potentially a negative experience using the network.
This should be a feature made available only to brands. That way, we aren’t viewed as the faceless entities that gave the community the choice to make itself vulnerable to harassment, and everyone wins.