Twitter’s blue bird may not be staying in the sky for long

Of cyberbullies and trolls.

Chukwuma Okoye a famed meme-maker, was part of the second wave of millennial tweeters whose popularity rose as a result of inward facing impersonal jokes about African parents and millennial life. At peak of of his fame came viral replies and quotes from celebrities and many attempts to exploit his popularity for blog traffic, a comedy webshow and a T-Shirt line amonsgt other discontinued ventures. By the age of 18, Chukwuma controlled two accounts totaling a following of nearly thirty thousand people. He had a staggering level of unmeasured success and influence at his disposal, but even in a digital world, twenty-one year old Okoye is already aware fame does not come without a price even when its ‘just twitter’.

Okoye’s first encounter with the pervasive dangers of Twitter’s open timeline system came after some tweets from his account were uncovered to have been seemingly copied off similar posts by other people.  Though Okoye recounts that he regrets the role he played in his own ordeal, he also vaguely mentions how other popular tweeters have been guilty of the same charge in the past to no consequence.  But the penance he paid for what he assumed an inconsequential crime by far outweighed the sin.  “At first i wasn’t bothered” he says, “Until my twitter handle became a top trend in Nigeria, with over twenty thousand people calling me names and insulting me for stealing tweets, even those I thought were my friends. I was like 18 at the time, and for the first time in my life, I realised what it meant to be depressed”

This was the beginning of a slippery slope for Okoye. Following the fall-out with seemingly adoring fans who shared, LOL’ed and LMAO’ed his tweets just weeks prior. Chukuwma came under intensified scrutiny for everything he posted on the internet. His turn from Afrocentric themed tweets to mainly posts with praises and pictures of Rihanna became the butt of banter about his loss of his African identity by trying to be American. Even a recent outing of another popular tweeter for stolen tweets brought Chukwuma back into the trending topic side bar. According to Okoye,  some of the messages and comments aimed at him ranged from banal mob mentality chatter to suggestions that he be sought out and murdered for his content and style of tweeting.

Chukuma Okoye says he is no longer bothered by the constant bullying he faces on twitter , but his on-going experience is important in the current discourse seeking to explain Twitter’s dip in the stock market. This is reflective of Twitter’s shrinking number of users, causing the company’s executives scramble for solutions. Its shares per dollar fell from $26 to $17.75 in the time between when the IPO first launched to now. Investors are quickly losing faith as the public watches and speculates when the hammer would finally fall.

Last year, the media was flooded with a slew of think-pieces claiming Twitter had a problem. A troll problem. One it hasn’t been able to solve in a decade. The platform’s ‘public square’ format was an achievement in the time of its inception. Everyone could reach each other and with 1.3 billion accounts signed up, communication became a tale of mobile internet and screen tapping. The sharing was unhindered and the DMs open. It was an international communications dreamland rigged with a nicely wrapped bomb. What Twitter is now is in Buzzfeed’s description ‘a honeypot for assholes,’ and in its 11-year existence, Twitter has failed to put the foot down, effectively turning it into a troll wonderland. Where other sites had a means of self protection and insulation from negative influences, Twitter plays host to the world’s biggest cyber bullies and loudmouths who were ever ready by simply reading social cues and triggering victims in the most crude way possible.

This year saw an upward spike in the number of celebrities who either deleted their accounts or decided to step away from the bird just because they couldn’t deal with the trolls and bullies anymore. The most recent subtraction was Ed Sheeran, whose appearance on Game of Thrones sparked a trend of hateful tweets which led him to shut down his account. Even the ordinary users are leaving. The evidence is there in the drop from 328 million monthly active users to 317 million. It’s not the first and last time this will happen. Twitter’s toxic atmosphere has made it difficult for ‘free speech’ in a sense to exist on its own and thrive. The public nature of the site has effectively crippled it. Ease of access has destroyed whatever privacy and sanity a user might want to preserve online.

Twitter’s problem is in a word, abuse. Abuse of free speech, abuse of the platform, abuse of users. One way of picturing this is to imagine a person on a busy street who is suddenly being attacked for a random comment. That’s the reality of Twitter, a reality dealing with the mob mentality which exists in much of the web. The dangers of social media have always been inherent, but it is exaggerated and multiplied hundredfold on Twitter. Openness on twitter means the stalker-bug geo-tagging feature of Snapchat meets Tinder’s pick-up line based impersonal supermarket for sex, while managing to intensify self-consciousness like Instagram due to the public availability of posts to the rest of the world.

But the bane of Twitter -which encompasses the best of all the other sites- lies in its complacence and almost utter neglect of the people who use it. On each site exists the bigots, the loudmouths and other unsavories but they do not have the kind of hold on the public elsewhere that they possess on Twitter. Why do you think Donald Trump can get away with harassing a teenager online? Users most times have two options to protect themselves. Either they consciously curate their timelines, cutting out the crazies and insulating themselves from the madness or they leave their timelines as it is and just try to ignore and navigate the swamp. Either way, it’s a risk the user has to take; the easier alternative being to log out and delete. Twitter certainly doesn’t want that.

The coolness of Twitter is now in the past and the bird is on its way out. Twitter was once the baby of the revolution but it’s due to pop its clogs any day now. Unless the executives can find away out of the mess, Twitter will fizzle out and join MySpace in the back benches of tech history. The story of its consistent drop is even told in the forecasts. By 2020, Twitter might be seeing its new user additions dwindle to 3.6 million. It’s becoming harder to keep up with the other networks, all because of a failure to act. As it is, Twitter is testing various means of drawing users back including a subscription service and monetization through ads. Whether their escape hatches are working remains to be seen but the truth will always be that Twitter’s downward spiral isn’t over because of how the little the company is doing to make sure trolls don’t ruin good things for the rest of us.

Featured Image Credit: Debola Abimbolu/@debola_abimbolu

A journalist by training, Ehimenim is a lover of history, good books and Game of Thrones. For her, the real world is just another Westeros and everyone is a supporting character. Read and repeat is her motto. Give her a wave on Twitter @EAgweh.

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