Friday, January 15, 2016

Twitter, The Invisible Razorblade Tornado

I got into a Twitter argument with somebody today because I tweeted a link to their tweet, with some commentary. Not going to link up any more details, because I don't want to have random Twitter fights. But the commentary was mild, acknowledging a minor point of contention which might have been raised by a subset of my followers. It existed purely to fend off these minor points of contention. It might have done that job; I don't know. I do know that the person who posted the original tweet took it as an attack of some kind, and responded furiously with I think four new tweets going into incredible detail about how she didn't owe anybody a list of caveats and exceptions in the context of a 140-character microblogging format. While this assertion was true, it also seemed batshit insane.

Here's the thing.

This person was a black woman, and (as you already know) she was posting opinions on the Internet. I've never been a black woman posting opinions on the Internet myself, but everything I've ever read on the subject, by those who have had that experience, strongly suggests that being a black woman posting opinions on the Internet means you encounter ferocious, hateful criticism with literally every tweet you make. So even though this woman's response seemed batshit insane to me, in the context of how she interacted with my tweets, it was probably a completely reasonable misunderstanding on her end. It was a batshit insane way to interact with me, in my opinion, but I very strongly suspect that it was a completely reasonable way for her to interact with her timeline.

There are two things to think about here. The first is that, when you build social software, you're building proxy objects that people interact with instead of interacting with human beings. The second is that Twitter's failure to fully consider the consequences of this fact have led Twitter to become an automatic gaslighting machine. Step one, you're subjected to ferocious hatred. Step two, you encounter a very mild point of disagreement. Step three, in context, this mild disagreement looks like more ferocious hatred, so you respond, quite reasonably, with fierce defiance. Step four, the person who mildly disagreed is now receiving a wildly disproportionate degree of fierce defiance for no readily apparent reason. So they decide that you're fucking nuts. Step five, they tell you you're fucking nuts.

Boom. You have now been gaslighted by a completely sincere and previously disinterested individual who, up to the time of the unintentional gaslighting, harbored no ill intention towards you whatsoever. And this cycle repeats all the fucking time. In this way, if you're subject to harassment on Twitter, Twitter's terrible lack of insight into its own social affordances automatically converts random disinterested people into a crowd of gaslighters.

So.

If you encounter this kind of seeming paranoia on Twitter, please keep in mind, you may be communicating with a completely reasonable person who is trapped inside an invisible tornado of razorblades (with apologies to Adam Wiggins, who used to have a blog with the same name, and who I'm stealing a phrase from). Obviously, this is a story of how I failed to resist the incentives that drive this terrible automatic gaslighting machine, and became part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. But I hope it can serve as some kind of mea culpa, and some kind of warning or cautionary tale, both for anybody else on Twitter, and anybody else in the business of creating software. The past few years have really demonstrated that failing to think through the social affordances of a platform, and failing to listen to your users when they report unintended side effects, can have absolutely terrible consequences.