Farväl, @sweden . That means farewell, but don’t worry, the country isn’t going anywhere. Its Twitter account, which for seven years has been run by a different Swede every week, will cease its democratic experiment at the end of September. Anyone interested in how we talk to each other on the Internet, both within a nation and without, can learn a few lessons.
@sweden, created by a government agency and a tourism organization, both devoted to selling the Scandinavian state overseas, was an ode to societal openness in a country that passed an anti-censorship law way back when in 1766 . The “curators” who ran its account were supposed to represent Sweden in all its glory and its ugliness — to prove that Swedish people are more than boringly “Ikea-ish”. This they certainly accomplished.
“Sweden Gives Full Control of Official Twitter Account to Candid Masturbator,” read a headline in the first week of citizen command after the inaugural curator offered up a little too much information on his day-to-day schedule. More recently, a curator seized on President Trump’s startling remark about “what’s happening last night in Sweden” to correct the record (lots was happening, but nothing of the nature that Trump’s terrorism-related comments suggested). On the more routine end of the spectrum, the current and second-to-last curator has used her time to talk about her sequin jacket and then explain what a sequin is (“Just imagine really big glitter!”).
And, because this is the Internet, things also got racist: “Whats the fuzz with jews,” one curator wanted to know.
Now that Sweden is shutting down its project, it’s hard not to wonder whether the Web has become too tangled for the country to handle. Organizers did acknowledge in their announcement of the decision that “the internet and social media have developed at an unprecedented rate,” and they’ve also said that curators increasingly became subject to vitriol from other users as time went by and more and more trolls populated the Internet ecosystem.
But what was always so fascinating about Sweden’s account is how little the nation let that vitriol get to it. It’s not uncommon that some company or another tries optimistically to introduce a new idea to the Internet, only to discover they were foolish to trust a system they did not understand. Time Magazine attempted in 2009 to let the people vote on the most influential individual of the year; 4channers hacked the system to install the online community’s founder at the top of the list and make the first letters of the winners’ names spell out a lewd message. When Microsoft tried to hang loose with millennials by introducing them to a chatbot it called its “AI fam from the internet who’s got zero chill,” those millennials promptly taught the bot how to be a raging bigot.
Sweden’s hard-headed optimism also backfired on occasion, but by and large the country shrugged its shoulders. Curators were encouraged not to engage in hate speech or attack others, yet the only real rules were to keep it legal and keep it noncommercial. Sweden deleted just seven tweets in the time the account ran, three for copyright infringement. A list of blocked users attacking the account’s curators and others in reply threads was swiftly unblocked (unsurprisingly, things get sticky when the government starts regulating speech), and from then on, block lists were wiped every week.
The project’s aim was openness, and this was what openness looked like: humanity in all its normalcy and its oddity, its thoughtfulness — and its awfulness, sometimes, too.
The project of openness, of course, is not just Sweden’s. It’s also the project of Internet pioneers who built the system all of us now inhabit and the countries that now seek to regulate it. Those in control of online platforms are themselves curators of a much larger conversation, and as they consider curating more carefully, they confront the same trade-offs Sweden did.
When anything goes, ugliness ensues — even in a society with somewhat fewer culture rifts than the United States, or (and this is really the social media sites’ domain) the world at large. When you walk back the Internet’s animating notion that connection is, on its own, worth celebrating, you may well lose a lot of that ugliness. But the question is what else will be lost.
The struggle for today’s curators is how to create a conversational ecosystem that’s not only safe and thoughtful and full of information, but also eccentric and unpredictable and honest at the same time. It’s how to build a better Internet that doesn’t look like an Ikea showroom. Luckily, they have more than a week to figure it out.