Digifesto

Category: social media

The Facebook ethics problem is a political problem

So much has been said about the Facebook emotion contagion experiment. Perhaps everything has been said.

The problem with everything having been said is that by an large people’s ethical stances seem predetermined by their habitus.

By which I mean: most people don’t really care. People who care about what happens on the Internet care about it in whatever way is determined by their professional orientation on that matter. Obviously, some groups of people benefit from there being fewer socially imposed ethical restrictions on data scientific practice, either in an industrial or academic context. Others benefit from imposing those ethical restrictions, or cultivating public outrage on the matter.

If this is an ethical issue, what system of ethics are we prepared to use to evaluate it?

You could make an argument from, say, a utilitarian perspective, or a deontological perspective, or even a virtue ethics standpoint. Those are classic moves.

But nobody will listen to what a professionalized academic ethicist will say on the matter. If there’s anybody who does rigorous work on this, it’s probably somebody like Luciano Floridi. His work is great, in my opinion. But I haven’t found any other academics who work in, say, policy that embrace his thinking. I’d love to be proven wrong.

But since Floridi does serious work on information ethics, that’s mainly an inconvenience to pundits. Instead we get heat, not light.

If this process resolves into anything like policy change–either governmental or internally at Facebook–it will because of a process of agonistic politics. “Agonistic” here means fraught with conflicted interests. It may be redundant to modify ‘politics’ with ‘agonistic’ but it makes the point that the moves being made are strategic actions, aimed at gain for ones person or group, more than they are communicative ones, aimed at consensus.

Because e.g. Facebook keeps public discussion fragmented through its EdgeRank algorithm, which even in its well-documented public version is full of apparent political consequences and flaws, there is no way for conversation within the Facebook platform to result in consensus. It is not, as has been observed by others, a public. In a trivial sense, it’s not a public because the data isn’t public. The data is (sort of) private. That’s not a bad thing. It just means that Facebook shouldn’t be where you go to develop a political consensus that could legitimize power.

Twitter is a little better for this, because it’s actually public. Facebook has zero reason to care about the public consensus of people on Twitter though, because those people won’t organize a consumer boycott of Facebook, because they can only reach people that use Twitter.

Facebook is a great–perhaps the greatest–example of what Habermas calls the steering media. “Steering,” because it’s how powerful entities steer public opinion. For Habermas, the steering media control language and therefore culture. When ‘mass’ media control language, citizens no longer use language to form collective will.

For individualized ‘social’ media that is arranged into filter bubbles through relevance algorithms, language is similarly controlled. But rather than having just a single commanding voice, you have the opportunity for every voice to be expressed at once. Through homophily effects in network formation, what you’d expect to see are very intense clusters of extreme cultures that see themselves as ‘normal’ and don’t interact outside of their bubble.

The irony is that the critical left, who should be making these sorts of observations, is itself a bubble within this system of bubbles. Since critical leftism is enacted in commercialized social media which evolves around it, it becomes recuperated in the Situationist sense. Critical outrage is tapped for advertising revenue, which spurs more critical outrage.

The dependence of contemporary criticality on commercial social media for its own diffusion means that, ironically, none of them are able to just quit Facebook like everyone else who has figured out how much Facebook sucks.

It’s not a secret that decentralized communication systems are the solution to this sort of thing. Stanford’s Liberation Tech group captures this ideology rather well. There’s a lot of good work on censorship-resistant systems, distributed messaging systems, etc. For people who are citizens in the free world, many of these alternative communication platforms where we are spared from algorithmic control are very old. Some people still use IRC for chat. I’m a huge fan of mailing lists, myself. Email is the original on-line social media, and ones inbox is ones domain. Everyone who is posting their stuff to Facebook could be posting to a WordPress blog. WordPress, by the way, has a lovely user interface these days and keeps adding “social” features like “liking” and “following”. This goes largely unnoticed, which is too bad, because Automattic, the company the runs WordPress, is really not evil at all.

So there are plenty of solutions to Facebook being bad for manipulative and bad for democracy. Those solutions involve getting people off of Facebook and onto alternative platforms. That’s what a consumer boycott is. That’s how you get companies to stop doing bad stuff, if you don’t have regulatory power.

Obviously the real problem is that we don’t have a less politically problematic technology that does everything we want Facebook to do only not the bad stuff. There are a lot of unsolved technical accomplishments to getting that to work. I think I wrote a social media think piece about this once.

I think a really cool project that everybody who cares about this should be working on is designing and executing on building that alternative to Facebook. That’s a huge project. But just think about how great it would be if we could figure out how to fund, design, build, and market that. These are the big questions for political praxis in the 21st century.

notes

This article is making me doubt some of my earlier conclusions about the role of the steering media. Habermas, I’ve got to concede, is dated. As much as skeptics would like to show how social media fails to ‘democratize’ media (not in the sense of being justly won by elections, but rather in the original sense of being mob ruled), the fragmentation is real and the public is reciprocally involved in its own narration.

What can then be said of the role of new media in public discourse? Here are some hypotheses:

  • As a first order effect, new media exacerbates shocks, both endogenous and exogenous. See Didier Sornette‘s work on application of self-excited Hawkes process to social systems like finance and Amazon reviews. (I’m indebted to Thomas Maillart for introducing me to this research.) This changes the dynamics because rather than being Poisson distributed, new media intervention is strategically motivated.
  • As a second order effect, since new media acting strategically, it must make predictive assessments of audience receptivity. New media suppliers must anticipate and cultivate demand. But demand is driven partly by environmental factors like information availability. See these notes on Dewey’s ethical theory for how taste can be due to environmental adaptation with no truly intrinsic desire–hence, the inappropriateness of modeling these dynamics straightforwardly with ‘utility functions’–which upsets neoclassical market modeling techniques. Hence the ‘social media marketer’ position that engages regularly in communication with an audience in order to cultivate a culture that is also a media market. Microcelebrity practices achieve not merely a passively received branding but an actively nurtured communicative setting. Communication here is transmission (Shannon, etc.) and/or symbolic interaction, on which community (Carey) supervenes.
  • Though not driven be neoclassical market dynamics simpliciter, new media is nevertheless competitive. We should expect new media suppliers to be fluidly territorial. The creates a higher-order incentive for curatorial intervention to maintain and distinguish ones audience as culture. A critical open question here is to what extent these incentives drive endogenous differentiation, vs. to what extent media fragmentation results in efficient allocation of information (analogously to efficient use of information in markets.) There is no a priori reason to suppose that the ad hoc assemblage of media infrastructures and regulations minimizes negative cultural externalities. (What are examples of negative cultural externalities? Fascism, ….)
  • Different media markets will have different dialects, which will have different expressive potential because of description lengths of concepts. (Algorithmic information theoretic interpretation of weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.) This is unavoidable because man is mortal (cannot approach convergent limits in a lifetime.) Some consequences (which have taken me a while to come around to, but here it is):
    1. Real intersubjective agreement is only provisionally and locally attainable.
    2. Language use, as a practical effect, has implications for future computational costs and therefore is intrinsically political.
    3. The poststructuralists are right after all. ::shakes fist at sky::
    4. That’s ok, we can still hack nature and create infrastructure; technical control resonates with physical computational layers that are not subject to wetware limitations. This leaves us, disciplinarily, with post-positivist engineering, post-structuralist hermeneutics enabling only provisional consensus and collective action (which can, at best, be ‘society made durable’ via technical implementation or cultural maintenance (see above on media market making), and critical reflection (advancing social computation directly).
  • There is a challenge to Pearl/Woodward causality here, in that mechanistic causation will be insensitive to higher-order effects. A better model for social causation would be Luhmann’s autopoieisis (c.f Brier, 2008). Ecological modeling (Ulanowicz) provides the best toolkit for showing interactions between autopoietic networks?

This is not helping me write my dissertation prospectus at all.

How to tell the story about why stories don’t matter

I’m thinking of taking this seminar because I’m running into the problem it addresses: how do you pick a theoretical lens for academic writing?

This is related to a conversation I’ve found myself in repeatedly over the past weeks. A friend who studied Rhetoric insists that the narrative and framing of history is more important than the events and facts. A philosopher friend minimizes the historical impact of increased volumes of “raw footage”, because ultimately it’s the framing that will matter.

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending Techraking III, a conference put on by the Center for Investigative Reporting with the generous support and presence of Google. It was a conference about data journalism. The popular sentiment within the conference was that data doesn’t matter unless it’s told with a story, a framing.

I find this troubling because while I pay attention to this world and the way it frames itself, I also read the tech biz press carefully, and it tells a very different narrative. Data is worth billions of dollars. Even data exhaust, the data fumes that come from your information processing factory, can be recycled into valuable insights. Data is there to be mined for value. And if you are particularly genius at it, you can build an expert system that acts on the data without needing interpretation. You build an information processing machine that acts according to mechanical principles that approximate statistical laws, and these machines are powerful.

As social scientists realize they need to be data scientists, and journalists realize they need to be data journalists, there seems to be in practice a tacit admission of the data-driven counter-narrative. This tacit approval is contradicted by the explicit rhetoric that glorifies interpretation and narrative over data.

This is an interesting kind of contradiction, as it takes place as much in the psyche of the data scientist as anywhere else. It’s like the mouth doesn’t know what the hand is doing. This is entirely possible since our minds aren’t actually that coherent to start with. But it does make the process of collaboratively interacting with others in the data science field super complicated.

All this comes to a head when the data we are talking about isn’t something simple like sensor data about the weather but rather is something like text, which is both data and narrative simulatenously. We intuitively see the potential of treating narrative as something to be treated mechanically, statistically. We certainly see the effects of this in our daily lives. This is what the most powerful organizations in the world do all the time.

The irony is that the interpretivists, who are so quick to deny technological determinism, are the ones who are most vulnerable to being blindsided by “what technology wants.” Humanities departments are being slowly phased out, their funding cut. Why? Do they have an explanation for this? If interpetation/framing were as efficacious as they claim, they would be philosopher kings. So their sociopolitical situation contradicts their own rhetoric and ideology. Meanwhile, journalists who would like to believe that it’s the story that matters are, for the sake of job security, being corralled into classes to learn CSS, the programming language that determines, mechanically, the logic of formatting and presentation.

Sadly, neither mechanists nor interpretivists have much of an interest in engaging this contradiction. This is because interpretivists chase funding by reinforcing the narrative that they are critically important, and the work of mechanists speaks for itself in corporate accounting (an uninterpretive field) without explanation. So this contradiction falls mainly into the laps of those coordinating interaction between tribes. Managers who need to communicate between engineering and marketing. University administrators who have to juggle the interests of humanities and sciences. The leadership of investigative reporting non-profits who need to justify themselves to savvy foundations and who are removed enough from particular skillsets to be flexible.

Mechnanized information processing is becoming the new epistemic center. (Forgive me:) the Google supercomputer approximating statistics has replaced Kantian trancendental reason as the grounds for bourgious understanding of the world. This is threatening, of course, to the plurality of perspectives that do not themselves internalize the logic of machine learning. Where machine intelligence has succeeded, then, it has been by juggling this multitude of perspectives (and frames) through automated, data-driven processes. Machine intelligence is not comprehensible to lay interpretivism. Interestingly, lay interpetivism isn’t comprehensible yet to machine intelligence–natural language processing has not yet advanced so far. It treats our communications like we treat ants in an ant farm: a blooming buzzing confusion of arbitrary quanta, fascinatingly complex for its patterns that we cannot see. And when it makes mistakes–and it does often–we feel its effects as a structural force beyond our control. A change in the user interface of Facebook that suddenly exposes drunken college photos to employers and abusive ex-lovers.

What theoretical frame is adequate to tell this story, the story that’s determining the shape of knowledge today? For Lyotard, the postmodern condition is one in which metanarratives about the organization of knowledge collapse and leave only politics, power, and language games. The postmodern condition has gotten us into our present condition: industrial machine intelligence presiding over interpretivists battling in paralogical language games. When the interpretivists strike back, it looks like hipsters or Weird Twitter–paralogy as a subculture of resistance that can’t even acknowledge its own role as resistance for fear of recuperation.

We need a new metanarrative to get out of this mess. But what kind of theory could possibly satisfy all these constituents?

Complications in Scholarly Hypertext

I’ve got a lot of questions about on-line academic publishing. A lot of this comes from career anxiety: I am not a very good academic because I don’t know how to write for academic conferences and journals. But I’m also coming from an industry that is totally eating the academy’s lunch when it comes to innovating and disseminating information. People within academia are increasingly feeling the disruptive pressure of alternative publication venues and formats, and moreover seeing the need for alternatives for the sake of the intellectual integrity of the whole enterprise. Open science, open data, reproducible research–these are keywords for new practices that are meant to restore confidence in science itself, in part by making it more accessible.

One manifestation of this trend is the transition of academic group blogs into academic quasi-journals or on-line magazines. I don’t know how common this is, but I recently had a fantastic experience of this writing for Ethnography Matters. Instead of going through an opaque and problematic academic review process, I worked with editor Rachelle Annechino to craft a piece about Weird Twitter that was appropriate for the edition and audience.

During the editing process, I tried to unload everything I had to say about Weird Twitter so that I could at last get past it. I don’t consider myself an ethnographer and I don’t want to write my dissertation of Weird Twitter. But Rachelle encouraged me to split off the pseudo-ethnographic section into a separate post, since the first half was more consistent with the Virtual Identity edition. (Interesting how the word “edition”, which has come to mean “all the copies of a specific issue of a newspaper”, in the digital context returns to its etymological roots as simply something published or produced (past participle)).

Which means I’m still left with the (impossible) task of doing an ethnography (something I’m not very well trained for) about Weird Twitter (which might not exist). Since I don’t want to violate the contextual integrity of Weird Twitter more than I already have, I’m reluctant to write about it in a non-Web-based medium.

This carries with it a number of challenges, not least of which is the reception on Twitter itself.

What my thesaurus and I do in the privacy of our home is our business and anyway entirely legal in the state of California. But I’ve come to realize that forced disclosure is an occupational hazard I need to learn to accept. What these remarks point to, though, is the tension between access to documents as data and access to documents as sources of information. The latter, as we know from Claude Shannon, requires an interpreter who can decode the language in which the information is written.

Expert language is a prison for knowledge and understanding. A prison for intellectually significant relationships. It is time to move beyond the institutional practices of triviledge

- Taylor and Saarinen, 1994, quoted in Kolb, 1997

Is it possible to get away from expert language in scholarly writing? Naively, one could ask experts to write everything “in plain English.” But that doesn’t do language justice: often (though certainly not always) new words express new concepts. Using a technical vocabulary fluently requires not just a thesaurus, but an actual understanding of the technical domain. I’ve been through the phase myself in which I thought I knew everything and so blamed anything written opaquely to me on obscurantism. Now I’m humbler and harder to understand.

What is so promising about hypertext as a scholarly medium is that it offers a solution to this problem. Wikipedia is successful because it directly links jargon to further content that explains it. Those with the necessary expertise to read something can get the intended meaning out of an article, and those that are confused by terminology can romp around learning things. Maybe they will come back to the original article later with an expanded understanding.

xkcd: The Problem with Wikipedia

Hypertext and hypertext-based reading practices are valuable for making ones work open and accessible. But it’s not clear how to combine these with scholarly conventions on referencing and citations. Just to take Ethnography Matters as an example, for my article I used in-line linking and where I got to it parenthetical bibliographic information. Contrast with Heather Ford’s article in the same edition, which has no links and a section at the end for academic references. The APA has rules for citing web resources within an academic paper. What’s not clear is how directly linking citations within an academic hypertext document should work.

One reason for lack of consensus around this issue is that citation formatting is a pain in the butt. For off-line documents, word processing software has provided myriad tools for streamlining bibliographic work. But for publishing academic work on the web, we write in markup languages or WYSIWIG editors.

Since standards on the web tend to evolve through “rough consensus and running code”, I expect we’ll see a standard for this sort of thing emerge when somebody builds a tool that makes it easy for them to follow. This leads me back to fantasizing about the Dissertron. This is a bit disturbing. As much as I’d like to get away from studying Weird Twitter, I see now that a Weird Twitter ethnography is the perfect test-bed for such a tool precisely because of the hostile scrutiny it would attract.

Aristotelian legislation and the virtual community

I dipped into Aristotle’s Politics today and was intrigued by William Ellis’ introduction.

Ellis claims that in Aristotle’s day, you would call on a legislator as an external consultant when you set about founding a new city or colony. There were a great variety of constitutions available to be studied. You would study them to become an expert in how to design a community’s laws. Classical political philosophy was part of the very real project of starting new communities supporting human flourishing.

We see a similar situation with on-line communities today. If cyberspace was an electronic frontier, it’s been bulldozed and is now a metropolis with suburbs and strip malls. But there is still innovation in on-line social life as social media infrastructure as users migrate between social networking services.

If Lessig is right and “code is law“, then the variety of virtual communities and the opportunity to found new ones renews the role of the Aristotelian legislator. We can ask questions like: should an on-line community be self-governing or run by an aristocracy? How can it sustain itself economically, or defend itself in (cyber-)wars? How can it best promote human flourishing? The arts? Justice?

It would be easy to trivialize these possibilities by noting that virtual life is not real life. But that would underestimate the shift that is occurring as economic and political engagement moves on-line. In recognition and anticipation of these changes, philosophy has a practical significance in comprehensive design.

twitter’s liberal bias

Pew Research Center recently put out a report on Twitter’s liberal bias. It argues that overall sentiment on certain political events on Twitter is far to the left of national surveys. Also, people on Twitter complain a lot (are more negative). That makes sense, because Twitter has only 13% of the country even looking at it, and only 3% of the population posting or retweeting. And many of these people are younger.

“Weird Twitter” art experiment method notes and observations

First, I got to say: Weird twitter definitely exists, and it is bigger and weirder than I imagined.

I want to write up some notes on my methodology for determining this, but I feel like some self-disclosure is in order.

I’m a PhD student with research interests that include community formation on the internet and collective intelligence. I’ve been studying theories about how communities establish their boundaries using symbols, and am also interested in “collective sensemaking.”

I am 27 years old and have been on the internet for long enough to know what I’m doing. I am really into conceptual art.

I’ve been aware of what I’ve referred to as “weird twitter” for some time, and have been curious what’s going on. I love it and love that it exists. But I didn’t know if it was real, or just something I was peripherally aware of because I followed a few people. It was much, much deeper than I had the patience to venture into at the time, but I had no sense of its scale.

Unfortunately, doing analysis on a gigantic unstructured digital social network turns out to be one of the big challenges of contemporary social science research. You either need to slurp a lot of data into something that crunches numbers, or you have to painstakingly research individuals in a tedious way that is not going to give you any general results on the scale necessary for this problem. So I tried a new method.

This method, which I don’t have a good name for, is basically: call it names, and see if it answers back. In other words, trolling.

I did this in August on a lark.

That post was an experiment.

  • Suppose “weird twitter” did not exist. Then there would be no reason for anybody to identify with its content. It would be a blog post lost in obscurity, like most of my blog posts.
  • But if “weird twitter” did exist, then there was a chance that it would react to its label in a statistically significant way.

I’ll adopt some speculative language for a moment: what if “weird twitter” were a kind of collective intelligence? Is it self-aware?

There are many theories of how self-awareness arises. Some believe that a person’s self-awareness depends on their interacting socially with others. It will not be a self until it is treated like a self. Until then, it will exist in some pre-conscious, animal state.

Others have argued that the Internet is creating a “global brain” of collective intelligence. This raises questions implicated by but far more interesting than the question of whether “corporations are people”. In what ways can a collection of people be a person? Do they need to self-identify as a community before that happens?

So many interesting questions.

Of course, if it were true that “weird twitter” were just a bunch of people telling jokes, and not a community, identity, culture, or collective intelligence, then a blog post about them would be meaningless and ephemeral.

For fun, I made the post extra obtuse.

I should say: “Weird twitter” seemed like a fun bunch, mostly just a bunch of jokers who don’t take things too seriously. So there was no way such a post would be taken seriously unless, well, I was wrong, and some people took it very, very seriously.

null

I have never gotten more hate spam in my life. Holy crap.

It is a really good thing I have a thick skin, because the amount of abuse I’ve put up with in the past 48 hours has been intense. There has also been a pretty epic amount of disdain and even a little attempted character assassination….

A note about this:

Ok, I need to address this directly, partly because it is the sort of thing that can really ruin ones reputation, and partly because I think it raises some pretty interesting questions on feminism on the internet.

Kimmy (@aRealLiveGhost) is a talented poet whose work I generally like and have recommended to others who appreciate poetry. (Think her reconfigurations of @horse_ebooks tweets are her best work.) As far as I know, she got her start just tweeting authentically. At some point, she started posting pictures of herself along with her poetry. She also seemed alarmed by the number of followers she was getting.


That was in January, which was before she was a minor internet celebrity with thousands of followers. However, one source (see comments to this post) has noted considerable overlap between “weird twitter” and the feminist twitter landscape. In light of this whole art project/experiment thing, Kimmy referred to that tweet, which generated some discussion.

As I’ve learned, this comment bothered Kimmy, and I’ve apologized. As I’ve explained, my intention was to point out that there might be some connection between (especially a woman) posting cute pictures of herself on the internet and her suddenly getting a lot of attention on the internet. The recent Violentacrez scandal highlights the extremes of this, and why I might be concerned on her behalf.

This comment, which some have called “anti-woman”, has been variously interpreted as:

  • “mansplaining”, presumably because I should know already that all women on the internet know that putting cute pictures of themselves will get them a lot of attention/followers/whatever.
  • insinuating that Kimmy’s success (in terms of Twitter followers I guess?) is undeserved or only because she put pictures of herself on the internet.

I take feminism rather seriously and so I found these accusations pretty hurtful, actually. But then I thought about it and realized that taken together, they make no sense. So, I’m over it.

EDIT: In the ensuing discussion over this, I’ve learned a lot about how feminists think about this comment. It’s reasonable for women to suspect that somebody making such a comment has hostile or demeaning intentions, and that problem is especially exacerbated in low-bandwidth computer mediated communication such as Twitter, where so much is left to interpretation. I regret saying it.

In other words, the experiment was a wild success in terms of generating a significant reaction. However, the results coming in were literally all over the map: random hate, denial that the phenomenon existed, direct confirmation that the phenomenon existed, questioning of the meaning of it. A surprising number of people telling me I had “ruined” something, or “didn’t get” something.

Basically, there was every possible angle of existential crisis represented in the response from the collective consciousness of weird twitter.

Or maybe subconscious. Some people on Twitter seem to see it as primarily an expression of the subconscious. Which would explain why it hates getting called out so much.

These results were nonetheless inconclusive. Weird twitter was being awakened from its subconscious, unreflective slumber. So I gave it a kick.

This post was of course the kind of postmodern ironic half-joke that seems to be so characteristic of “weird twitter” but I guess it went over the heads of a lot of people.

There’s a legitimate concern here that this post involved what the academic and mainstream press has termed “cyberbullying”. But I made a calculated decision that people who were actively being dickish about the whole thing to me directly were asking for it and could handle being made fun of. In case anyone else was concerned (one person who contacted me was), I spoke with@bugbucket and @hellhomer and we’re cool.

The point of the second post was:

  • As a measurement instrument. I had a good indication that Weird Twitter really did exist. But how big is it? I’ve got analytics set up, and figured there was no reason for somebody who wasn’t part of weird twitter to want to read a post about weird twitter. This would give a rough order of magnitude estimate at least.
  • To test the theory that an on-line community exists partly by negotiating its own symbolic boundaries, and to see if it would achieve self-consciousness if pressed on the issue.
  • To generate more data about digital communities reacting to external reification. The nice thing about all this is that Twitter stores probably 99% of all the relevant communication for this kind of identity formation process (or the failure of it), so at some point somebody might dig it up and check it out in more detail.

In case you are wondering, if you were to ask me “How many people do you think are part of Weird Twitter?”, I’d now say “about 3,000″, if you operationalize “weird twitter” as “the number of people who care enough about being called out as Weird Twitter to read an article about it”. There may, of course, be multiple or overlapping weird twitters. Maybe other parts of the “weird twitter” landscape could be identified by referring to other patterns of behavior. (Maybe there’s a weird twitter that tells completely different jokes than the ones identified in the original post) Perhaps this only got to the most sensitive or curious bunch, those that actively click links. There’s also no accounting for factors like time zone.

Really the next thing to do would be to try to map out the actual social network structure.

Qualitatively, there were a lot of interesting reactions and questions raised in this process. I want to note them here before I forget:

  • Because of the tone of the initial post, I was estimated to be older than I am, and I got some criticism that I was some weird old guy invading somebody else’s space. One person, presumably a teenager, tweeting angrily that I was exploiting teenagers.

  • Lots of people reacted to the feeling of being watched or categorized. That’s ironic, because what people post on Twitter is openly available, and many of the members of this community of literally thousands of “followers”. And, Twitter data as a whole is being slurped and analyzed and categorized all the time algorithmically for research and marketing purposes. The amount of outrage created by a blog post that WASN’T based on observation of most of the system suggests that people in Weird Twitter really don’t get this.
  • One of the smartest response I saw was somebody who suggested making their posts more private to avoid having them looked at by people like me. Yes, that is correct. I was pulling a prank on you. I am the least of your problems.
  • Those who I guess you could call the “thought leaders” in the Weird Twitter community are experts at managing information flow. While several members of the community passed around links to my post directly, others were quite deliberate in posting links to images that would not be traced back here. My favorite posts were those that obliquely acknowledged there was a controversy going on with no navigable links at all.
  • I was definitely “othered” throughout the whole process, despite the fact that I’ve been using Twitter and interacting with a few of the members of this community in a peripheral way for a while, and the claims by some of its members that it’s just a community of people making jokes than anyone can join. (If it is the latter, then I declare myself a member.) Since its central members appear to have more followers than they can keep track of, it’s not surprising that they would see me as an outsider, especially given the estranged language and alternative platform of the blog post. @hellhomer‘s observations that I was unqualified to comment on the community because I only shared a small number of connections was evidence that online community membership can be operationalized as membership in a quasi-clique structure.
  • A lot of people assumed I’m planning on writing an academic article about this, and thought that would be exploitative. In reality, I think there’s no way in hell I would get this past the IRB. This was performance art. Y’all are suckers. Funniest were the people that got on my case about the flimsiness of my analysis or research methods. Funniest was the person that told me I really ought to be referencing Bruno Latour.
  • But, one day yeah maybe I’ll write an article about Weird Twitter. Obviously I’d go about it totally differently, though I might start with leads I’ve gotten through this project. I do believe that the best way to study radically transparent on-line communities is through radically transparent research (thanks Mel for introducing me to this term), which this experiment was an exercise in.
  • Who the hell posted this quora post on weird twitter? What’s their angle? Their insight that Weird Twitter is like the /b/ of Twitter is a bold claim, because fewer communities have had an impact on internet culture as great at /b/. Have any significant memes originated in Weird Twitter and escaped into the wild? Unclear. Are there other, similarly creative and unregulated pseudonymous communities in other social media?
  • I’ve been asked by one tweeter to ‘please explore the carefucker vs jokeman split amongst “weird twitter”‘. That is a useful research lead if I’ve ever seen one. “Carefucker” has not yet hit Urban Dictionary, but I guess the term is self-explanatory. Ironically, in my observations the most polished “jokemen” were also the most strategic and guarded about their references to being labeled, while the most authentically absurd appeared to be “carefucking”. I suspect that some folks were trying hard to be cool.
  • A significant portion of the reactions were people upset that I had “ruined” their “thing”, that thing which may or may not be weird twitter. If I had to guess, this is due to the perception that blog posts are less ephemeral than tweets, which is true, but also the illusion that what is phenomenologically ephemeral for them isn’t permanent in fact. As I said in my second post, there’s a weird power dynamic at work between blogs and tweets. But this is absurd. Because, if your attention span has been trained on blogs and not tweets, you realize that blog posts, too, are historically ephemeral. Most of the traffic to this post has been from Twitter itself. It is an artifact produced by Weird Twitter, not (as it has been accused of being) a voyeuristic or surveilling observation made on it from without. If this post has any significance within the history of that community, it will only be because the community’s consciousness of itself lead to a kind of dissolution (or suicide), or because its significance has outshone its containment within Twitter itself. Only time will tell on that one.
  • I have heard a lot of complaints about the prominence of internet trolls sending death threats to especially feminist bloggers. I find that really interesting, because I generally appreciate feminists and and do some research on internet security. It was pretty shocking how much vitriol I got exposed to for writing a blog post describing an internet community that maybe didn’t exist. I’ve assumed for the purpose of writing this that those people who attacked me were somehow motivated by anger at the blog post. But wouldn’t that be completely batshit? I mean, look at that first blog post. It’s dumb. I have an alternative theory, which is that there is a population on the internet that opportunistically hates on anybody who they think they can get away with hating on. This is a testable hypothesis, which if true would simplify the problem of cleaning up the mess. If hate speech on the internet were considered less a political issue and more an issue like spam detection and removal, I think the Internet would be a better place.
  • If you’ve read this far, then thank you for your interest. I’ve found this a very rewarding and insightful experience, and I hope you have gotten something out of it as well.

Weird Twitter: The Symbolic Construction of Community through Iterative Reification

Is there such a thing as Weird Twitter?

Earlier I wrote a blog post based on my (non-participant) observations of a Twitter subculture. Recently, there’s been some activity around it in the tweetosphere itself, which sheds light on how reification affects community development in social media.

This guy has almost 10,000 followers. Conversation analysis techniques indicate that he is upset at the reification of ‘weird twitter’ by an Other, ‘nerds’.

I have not yet been able to trace the reaction to these observations fully within Twitter itself. But preliminary results indicate discomfort within the alleged ‘weird twitter’ community as negotiates with its own boundaries in digital space.

Most of the reaction to the original post was dismissive (though I notice due to a sharp uptake in blog traffic that several people were intrigued enough to google for the post). But it just takes one stoned kid freaking out to escalate an irresponsible exaggeration of the truth into a reality.

This guy then began tweeting indignantly, apparently offended that I would refer to ‘weird twitter’ without being part of his social circle.

Twitter user @hell_homer (whose avatar depicts the popular Simpsons character, Homer, in hell) appears to not appreciate the irony that by reaching out to the people who might be concerned about the ‘weird twitter’ label, he is symbolically constructing the weird twitter community within the digital social space. @hell_homer autoreifies ‘weird twitter’ through his very acts of resistance.

He’s been going on like this now for like four hours.

Psychoanalytically, we might infer that @hell_homer’s suffers severe cognitive dissonance over his identification with “weird twitter”. Perhaps he identifies so strongly with weird twitter that he is offended by having the term appropriated by an outsider. Or perhaps he is concerned about his centrality with said ‘weird twitter’ community, and so seeks to embed himself further in it by taking responsibility for negotiation of its boundaries.

He persists in denial, weaving himself a cocoon of spite.

Other members of this community are willing to volunteer contact information about its central figures.

This suggests that ‘weird twitter’, rather than being a distributed social network, is rather more like a cult of personality, or personalities. Given the heavy-tail distribution of followers within Twitter and the immediacy of communication (no distance perceived by audience from “speaker”, even when the speaker has thousands of followers), this seems likely prima facie.

Others within ‘weird twitter’ react more violently to the application of the label:

Others became depressed:

…but also recognized, at least subliminally, the “threat” of having ones publicly facing community whose members have tens of thousands of followers “discovered” by internet media:

Is it the threat of exposure that is threatening? Or is it reifying gaze that comes with it? And how is that gaze constructed within the community as it is observed?

Here we see a single act of observation abstracted into “people” who want to categorize “every” community on the internet. The initially dismissed ‘hogwash’ has become, through the symbolic construction of ‘weird twitter’ itself, a surveilling conspiracy, placed firmly in opposition.

This user then proceeded to tweet a piece of microfiction prophesying the future of his community.

Speculation: as an earlier and more persistent mode of internet discourse, blogs are viewed by digital natives who primarily use Twitter as a social networking platform as a matured, out-of-touch, and marginally more socially powerful force. Moreover, academic language’s distinction from the vernacular echos the power dynamics of meatspace into the digitally dual virtual world. These power dynamics problematize organic community growth.

Steve Morrell

Steve Morrell taught me how to play the harmonica and is now a close friend. This is him in his home playing a song he’s going to release soon. Since I messed up and got the original video sideways and couldn’t figure out how to fix it without cropping out his head, I decided to let it rotate the whole time. Enjoy!

Steve is an interesting musician for a lot of reasons. One of them is that for the 12 years I’ve known him he’s been teaching harmonica while quietly working on three albums totally under the radar.

He’s got an intimate understanding of how to make it in the music industry that’s dated to the 80’s, when he was a studio musician playing with a lot of bands in New York.

Mostly because he’s a friend and partly out of academic interest, I’m really curious whether and how his music spreads over the Internet. It’s solidly produced, catchy music by a seasoned musician who few people have heard of. Does he stand a chance? What are best practices around publicity for musicians these days?

Web “Atrocity” Tourism

Just learned from Joe Paul about a web site that used to exist called Portal of Evil. This site specialized in “web atrocity tourism”–linking to and commenting on the weirdest and scariest corners of the internet.

The most comprehensive account I can find of the site is on a Furry community wiki. It was apparently not primarily a troll community, but a hobby sport for tourists aware of their impact on the ecosystem:

Contrary to popular belief, the great majority of PoE members did not organize attacks on the websites listed on PoE. Rule #1 of the PoE forum rules, also known as the Prime Directive (or PD for short), stated: “Do not contact the site listed. Do not email the site owner. Do not post in their guestbooks. Do not post in their forums. If the site owners want to interact with visitors from PoE they can come to these forums.” PoE members were to keep their criticisms of the site to the PoE forums, even if the site owners posted to PoE of their own accord.

The site was taken down last year after five years of dormancy. One user laments that archives of the site have been actively discouraged, pointing out that that’s a shame, since it was a valuable trove of research and curation of the early web.

Which is totally right and totally frustrating. But apparently digital records of it still exist and there are spin-off communities. People can be tracked down and interviewed. So, all is not lost.

Fundamentally, it’s a really beautiful thing about the Internet that assists people who want to build communities around the ways that they are strange or perhaps crazy. Sure, a tiny percentage of it is morally objectionable, but most of it is just really funny.

And, think about it: today’s weirdos on the Internet are tomorrow’s identity groups asking for civil social treatment. While these groups will no doubt have plenty of their own records of their early history, contemporaneous ‘objective’ or critical perspectives will be important to them and maybe others as well. They are probably demanding civil treatment as I write this, only their struggle for social equality is so obscure that I have never had a reason to care.

Like a lot of white guys who were picked on sometimes as kids, I’ve got an abstract kind of solidarity with those folks that isn’t rooted in much personal experience of oppression. Call it compassion, if you want. I’m going to go ahead and let that be my dominant attitude on the matter until I hear about the specifics of some of those communities and maybe become revolted out of some taboo mentality or, more likely, bored. You should get on board with this if you aren’t already. It costs you nothing and can give you something to talk about, like Great Ape Personhood.

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