Skip to main content

As the dust settles in the aftermath of Canada's first high-profile digital-harassment case, one thing is obvious: The party is over for Twitter.

Last month, a Toronto court found that Gregory Alan Elliott was innocent of criminally harassing three women on the social-media platform. The Crown's case, unfortunately, was not a strong one. It centred on a number of tweets the defendant wrote to – and then, after he was blocked, about – the complainants over the course of two years. (Elliott would comment on the women on popular hashtags where he knew his accusers would be active, which is a bit like the digital equivalent of writing nasty things about someone who refuses to talk to you on the high-school bathroom wall.)

Although Elliott appeared to be an angry guy with a creepy fixation on the complainants, his actual tweets were pretty tame by trolling standards (as a columnist who writes on women's issues, I'm something of an expert on this). The judge found him innocent on the grounds that the three complainants couldn't reasonably have feared for their safety as they insisted they had.

So, is the case a victory for free speech or an "all clear" signal for online abusers everywhere?

Probably neither. What it is, in all likelihood, is the tip of a virtual iceberg. In Britain, police reported a 21-per-cent surge last year in reported crimes involving social media. This, in part, is because of a landmark case in which a feminist activist and an MP were subjected to a deluge of threats and insults after winning their campaign to get Jane Austen on the back of the £10 note. Two of their online harassers were sent to jail for several weeks, and rightly so. When you threaten someone with "worse than rape," as one of the British harassers did, there ought to be legal consequences.

But perhaps the more significant development lately is that social-media users are voting with their fingers. As Twitter becomes an increasingly unpleasant place to be, fewer people are going there – and that, for any social-media platform, is a major problem.

While just a few years ago Twitter seemed a panacea for ignorance and loneliness, a place where you could find out anything about everything that interested you and hang out, joking around with your funniest friends and mouthiest celebrities, today it feels more like an after-hours club where the bar's closed down, the DJ's packing up, and a sad handful of holdouts are pacing the dance floor, anxious for the night to go on.

One of those places where, if you hang around too long as a woman, someone will invariably say to you after something bad happens, "Weren't you asking for trouble just being there in the first place?"

Twitter's number of new users has been dropping for several years now and in the crucial U.S. market the join rate has been flat for the better part of a year. Facebook, which has worked hard to sort out its kinks and policing policies, is a monolith by contrast, and Twitter also has countless upstarts nipping at its heels. Instagram and WhatsApp now have more users than Twitter, and the teen-friendly SnapChat is not far behind. All this has led to a collapse in Twitter's share price, which has sunk to half its value since last fall.

The big problem, beyond the sheer faddishness of the social-media marketplace, is that Twitter's beleaguered management has failed to make the platform a place where people feel happy and safe and engaged. Its last CEO, Dick Costolo, was forced by the board to resign last year after a leaked memo in which he allowed: "We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years. It's no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day."

Now, Twitter has hired back its original CEO and creator, Jack Dorsey, to sort out the company's problems, but it's probably too late. The party has moved on.

The funny mistake people often make about the Internet is in thinking of it as something beyond our control. In fact, we made it, we operate it and it belongs to us. It's not some kind of digital Wild West in which death threats and unsolicited dick pics must be endured as a matter of course. If social-media sites don't clean up their act and protect the innocent, we can simply go elsewhere – and as the decline of Twitter shows, we will.

At the risk of overextending the party metaphor, Twitter is a lot like the pernicious logical conclusion of the old-fashioned masquerade ball. The idea that polite, repressed people might be encouraged to have more fun if their identities were partly concealed is a good one. But throw the doors open, fire the bouncers and offer every guest a complimentary balaclava and dagger? Well, then, I suppose it's true – you are just asking for trouble.