Popular blogger ignites uproar over Twitter harassment

Ariel Waldman, a blogger and Pownce employee, claims that microbloggng service refused to take real action after she complained. Abuse to become much bigger issue as Twitter grows.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read

This post was updated at 10:49 AM with comment from Ariel Waldman.

Some Web enthusiasts find microblogging service Twitter to be addictive because you can say absolutely anything you want--as long as it's 140 characters or less. So what happens when "saying anything" translates into harassment?

One avid Twitter user, Ariel Waldman, posted an entry Thursday on her personal blog, declaring that "Twitter refuses to uphold (its) terms of service."

She said she started receiving "multiple accounts of harassment" from another user of the microblogging service and that when she petitioned to Twitter's community manager, he opted to remove the Twitter posts in question from the site's "public timeline."

Waldman wasn't satisfied, especially when the harassment allegedly continued and grew worse into 2008. She wanted to see user account bans of those responsible, and despite insisting that the activity was in violation of Twitter's terms of service, Twitter executives--including CEO Jack Dorsey--repeatedly said it wasn't.

Some of the comments at issue were apparently posted through a site that allows users to post anonymous "tweets" to a central account, making it difficult to track them to a specific user.

Blogger Ariel Waldman spurred a lively debate when she claimed that Twitter didn't abide by its own terms of service. She said it refused to take down an account that harassed her. flickr.com/arielwaldman

Waldman is hardly the average Twitter user. Well-known in geek circles, she's a "social-media insights consultant" who contributes to tech blog Engadget and runs her own site, Shake Well Before Use, about "art, advertising, sex, and technology."

In other words, in the bubble-like culture of Web 2.0, Waldman is a sort of celebrity--and with celebrity comes scrutiny and often ugly commentary. If Lindsay Lohan took action every time Perez Hilton and his celebrity gossip brethren scrawled "slut" across pictures of her, her lawyer would be working overtime.

Waldman also works as the community manager at Pownce, one of Twitter's few rivals in the microblogging space, giving her a bit of a conflict of interest in the issue. But in a phone conversation with CNET News.com on Friday, she said that the issue (and discussion with Twitter employees) began before she was hired at Pownce, and that she is a part-time employee with no investment in the company.

Still, Twitter has some ostensible safeguards against abuse. The site's terms of service say users "must not abuse, harass, threaten, impersonate, or intimidate other Twitter users" and that the company "may, but have no obligation to, remove content and accounts containing content that we determine in our sole discretion are unlawful, offensive, threatening, libelous, defamatory, obscene, or otherwise objectionable or violates any party's intellectual property, or these terms of use."

The final response to Waldman's complaint from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone asserted that "Twitter is a communication utility, not a mediator of content," and that "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." Stone added that Twitter's team would continue talking about which situations were appropriate for account banning.

As Waldman pointed out, however, other online services, such as Flickr, Digg, and her employer are far less laissez-faire, banning accounts frequently. And she raised a legitimate concern when she said harassing messages are an issue for identity management in the chaotic muck of the Web.

"Anyone can use Twitter to consistently harass you and ruin search results for your identity," Waldman wrote, "and Twitter won't execute any means of community management."

That goes back to whether Twitter is inherently for communication or community. There's no universal standard for terms of service across social-media sites, and most Web users would likely agree that there probably shouldn't be one. Different services attract different audiences and demographics, and have created different cultures, in effect.

If Twitter wants to take a more hands-off approach to situations like Waldman's, allowing some of the dialogue that a Digg or Flickr wouldn't, it would be putting itself in the league of say-anything forums like MetaFilter.

That would make the service look less wishy-washy with its "we'll review the situation" response, but at the same time, branding itself as a free-for-all outlet likely wouldn't help, as Twitter, reportedly having received fresh VC funding, attempts to gain more mainstream traction.

"It seems like that's where a lot of the disagreement is," Waldman said to CNET News.com. "Twitter's not wanting to take the job of policing and their users are used to being in communities where I guess they are a bit more policed."

Either way, what Waldman calls "community management" is something that Twitter has to sort out--fast. As Twitter breaks further out of Silicon Valley culture, the service will invariably have to deal with users who cry foul over far tamer situations. Much like its famous outages, which the site finally addressed in full this week, abuse and harassment is something that Twitter can't simply ignore.