The Identity Crisis of Twitter

To a great many, social media is just a part of life now. Whether it’s Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, or Twitter, these websites and apps are practically glued to us due to the ever-increasing ubiquity of smartphones. But each form of social media in certain ways replicates the online communication tools of old, and I find that with Twitter in particular, its strengths and weaknesses come from being essentially a highly modular chatroom. The problem is that, while the scope of this “chatroom” can be large or small, individual users only have so much control once it gets beyond a certain size, which leads to Twitter and its users running into an identity crisis of sorts.

It’s true that if you want an absolutely private experience on Twitter, you can more or less make it happen. Set your account to private, only follow a handful of people, and maybe even communicate primarily through direct messages. You can actually just make it about you and your friends. However, there are a few aspects that limit the Twitter experience once you move past that point and want to utilize the site as most others do, which is to operate in this massive space where you can instantly search for what people are saying about any given topic.

Traditionally, chatrooms were less people-focused and more concept-focused. Even in the earliest days of AOL, you scrolled through a potential list of chats, picked one that matched your interests or desires, and then joined. Even if it was just to ask A/S/L to everyone, there was a sense that you were stepping into a shared, localized space. Web 1.0 had this feeling in general. With Twitter, you are essentially your own chatroom moderator, and it’s up to you to constantly manage who you want to listen to and who you want to interact with. This kind of customization certainly has its merits, as it lets you really control your experience on Twitter to a certain degree, but having to potentially police your own twitter feed constantly is practically a recipe for decision fatigue. A user doesn’t have to care that much, but that can lead to the next problem: if you choose to take a relatively hands-off approach, that means you can’t control the people who are peering inside.

A common story of many a Twitter faux pas is that a user (often a fairly prominent one) treats their very public and well-known account like it’s still a small, localized experience when things have in fact changed. This person might be using in-jokes that appear crass or downright offensive to outsiders, but is considered to be innocuous teasing by their more immediate circle. They might even get called out by their followers for those words and asked to apologize, and those followers might even have a point. Even so, it can feel like there’s a disconnect between what this particular user thinks is their Twitter experience (shooting the breeze with friends) and what the users at large think is the Twitter experience (a public forum where any and every statement hangs in the air for all to see).

Consider two scenarios of a person in real life who says something racist, not expecting it to be an issue, only to be reprimanded by someone listening. In scenario #1, it’s a private setting where a friend is warning this person that what they’re saying is messed up, and they need to watch how they think and use words. In scenario #2, it’s an open space where everybody’s listening and a stranger shouts down the speaker for being so damn racist. Both cases involve someone rightly pointing out racist speech and that it needs correcting, but there’s a fundamentally different experience between someone who says something around those with whom they’re familiar and while surrounded mostly by strangers. The issue with Twitter is that it can seem like the former on the surface, only for a user to discover that it’s been a public square all along. The perception of extremely public vs. relatively private space explodes and collapses in a way that doesn’t happen when you actively search for servers and chatrooms on IRC or the more modern Discord.

I believe that this folding of public and private on Twitter is also what makes harassment on the platform especially insidious. It’s no secret that certain groups (especially the alt-right) have learned to almost weaponize Twitter’s idiosyncratic behavior. They can make a statement, “innocently” @ another user, and sit back and let their followers dog-pile that user. They can search out people who are discussing a topic, and attack total strangers in their replies. Users might want to interact through Twitter as if they’re just talking to their friends and acquainances, but the search function makes it possible to seek out holders of different opinions and try to verbally abuse them. It’s all too easy to find someone you disagree with on Twitter, and to see them as the enemy.

Chatrooms aren’t and weren’t ever peaches and rainbows. They come with their own hosts of problems, from power-abusing moderators to the active nurturing of toxic spaces by users if they should so choose. I used to be part of a chatroom or two where there were some people with gigantic chips on their shoulders—folks who seemed a little too trigger-happy with their hostilities. I remember a time where I talked about my surprise that a couple of anime voice actors were married to each other, only to get shouted at about how I must be one of those shallow folks obsessed with following the frivolous minutiae of celebrities (but of course said in a much less polite way). I thought the guy was being an asshole, but I also went into that chat knowing that this was a possibility, and that I was ready to fight back and call him out on being unnecessarily angry. Not everyone is willing or should be willing to have to fend off trolls and angry mobs, but Twitter’s public/private collapse makes that fight all the more inevitable for anyone discussing a controversial topic.

I’ve been on Twitter for over ten years now, but I’ve come to realize that I’ve reduced my utilization of its chatroom-esque qualities a long time ago. I still do communicate with friends and mutuals to an extent, but a lot of it is me shouting into the wind and seeing what sticks. Much like this blog here, I use it as a place to experiment with an express thoughts and ideas. Analyzing this shift in Twitter behavior, I think it’s largely because a certain degree of distance is necessary. Those who jump onto Twitter with bleeding hearts inevitably attract sharks. But while there were always sharks, even among the islands of Web 1.0 and 2.0, the social media age means being surrounded by potential predators on all sides.

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Spirit vs. Letter in Social Media Harassment Policies

Social media platforms have been under fire by critics recently due to the way they’ve let radical groups take advantage of their platforms to attack and discredit others. People on Twitter are harassed, receiving death threats and worse, yet their harassers remain unbanned. Facebook has suffered from the inundation of fake news created by Russian propagandists, as well as racist advertising using their own ad system. A recent article by Sarah Wachter-Boettcher, titled “Facebook treats its ethical failures like software bugs, and that’s why they keep happening,” argues that Facebooks’s approach lacks a true human dimension, and fails to account for the subtle and nuanced ways that people end up using social media. In other words, using a wack-a-mole method to deal with this ignores, unintentionally or otherwise, the underlying issue of people being attacked online.

I concur with this sentiment, but would like to add something. It’s not just that treating problems like racist ad targeting as bugs or glitches is the wrong way to go, but that trying to govern social media platforms with hard and fast rules creates a rigid system that inevitably lends itself to loopholes that can be exploited.

I recently had a few discussions with friends and acquaintances, all programmers and software engineers. In one discussion, I had a small debate with a friend, who argued that laws should not be open to interpretation—what says, goes, ideally. Having “wiggle room” makes things messy. In another, the subject of self-driving cars came up. Among many of the programmers (but not all, mind), there was a shared stance that giving humans more control than self-driving cars would be to open up the efficient and organized traffic of the future to the unpredictable and poor decision-making of the average driver. Additionally, any problems that occur due to the incompleteness of the self-driving AI could be solved after they arise.

I don’t mean to stereotype programmers as all having a certain way of thinking or a certain set of beliefs (you’ll find them on all sides of the political spectrum, for example), but there’s a certain desire for the human-created mechanics of the world to make consistent, logical sense that I find common to programmers—i.e. the main people driving social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter behind the scenes. A faith (or perhaps desire) in these systems, and the idea that they can just increase the granularity of their rules, instead of trying to take a more humanistic direction, leads to holes that can be exploited.

No matter what parameters Twitter puts in for defining harassment, people will always find ways to attack others without “technically” breaking the rules. This, I believe, is the reason so many people appear to be unjustly banned while other accounts that spew hate and encourage online attacks can manage to stay active. One side is likely ignorant of rules X, Y, and Z, while the other deftly skirts them. Intent, something that requires a closer analysis, is left by the wayside.

Krang T. Nelson, a Twitter user named after a certain cartoon warlord from Dimension X, recently tested these limits. In a Vice article, Nelson describes how he decided to troll white supremacists by crafting the most intentionally absurd tweet possible, about “antifa supersoldiers” planning on beheading white parents and small business owners. Not only was it a clearly tongue-in-cheek call-out of alt-right talking points, it was also loaded with buzzwords that white nationalists actively look for. Nelson then discusses how the white nationalist movement understands the ways to take advantage of Twitter’s policies, and that they used this knowledge to get him (temporarily) banned over a facetious remark. Here, we see clear evidence that the groups known for Twitter harassment also know how to exploit its technicalities and parameters for their own ends.

Adhering to the letter and not the spirit of policies and laws is what fuels the abuse of online social platforms. Having actual people at all levels checking to see how Twitter, Facebook, etc. are being used, and relying not on hard and fast rules, is where things need to change. Granted, having “wiggle room” in rules means they can be exploited in a different way, but overly strict interpretations are also clearly not working.

 

Critical Mass: Gatchaman Crowds

What is the best way to describe Gatchaman Crowds? Though I don’t think it’s valid to say that Gatchaman Crowds is Gatchaman “in name only”, it’s certainly nothing like the original. Whereas Science Ninja Team Gatchaman was Super Sentai before Super Sentai was a thing, a team of costumed warriors dispensing martial arts beatdowns and bird missiles, Gatchaman Crowds is far more conceptually driven series that brings up and explores a variety of ideas pertaining to heroism, human motivation, living within an interactive and digitally connected world, and the advantages and limitations of large and small-scale group efforts.

Gatchaman Crowds follows a team of warriors who have the ability to transform with slick armor and powerful abilities. Their newest member is main character Ichinose Hajime, a relentlessly hyper and comfortably honest girl whose sheer energy is simultaneously both exhausting and invigorating. Assigned to fight an alien menace, their efforts as heroes are contrasted by another character, Ninomiya Rui, whose social networking service GALAX brings people together to collectively solve problems, Rui’s ultimate goal being a world where people realize the inherent value in helping others. Two shades of optimism interact with each other, sometimes cooperating and sometimes conflicting.

Crowds was my favorite anime of the summer for a number of reasons. Its presentation is extremely slick, with character designs reminiscent of Kyousogiga and Heartcatch Precure!, and 3DCG work on the Gatchaman outfits that really brings out the individuality of each character. It doesn’t just present a wide variety of ideas pertaining to large-population interactions and moralism, but actively explores them from a variety of angles. Its characters are streamlined extensively, but in a way which supports the overall sense of an exchange of ideas.

In terms of the show’s ability to encourage an evaluation of how we perceive problems, there are two aspects of Gatchaman Crowds which impress me in particular. The first is that it says there’s a difference between criticism and cynicism. Often when a text or a work of fiction presents a “QUESTION EVERYTHING” attitude, there’s a sense that it wants you to feel as if the world is in a neverending death spiral and that trust is a fantasy. As Hajime demonstrates numerous times throughout the series, however, just because you’re optimistic doesn’t mean you’re unable to see a situation from a variety of perspectives, or unable to make informed decisions. The second is that Gatchaman Crowds actually makes an effort to show how there are problems in the world that are best solved without violence, without resorting to an overblown or shallow “killing is wrong” message, or that it’s just a matter of trust.

When the Gatchaman are fighting the MESS early on in the series, strange alien creatures resembling alien rubik’s cubes who take over inanimate objects, it’s Hajime’s ability to think outside the box which allows her to try and communicate with the MESS instead of constantly fighting it out like the rest of the team. However, with the other alien presence Berg Katze (loosely based on the antagonist from the original Science Ninja Team Gatchaman), Hajime realizes that Katze is different and dangerous. At the same time, Berg Katze is someone who can’t be defeated through force because of the way it turns the characters’ own fears against them, and so a different and more creative solution is needed.

Speaking of Berg Katze, I find Katze to be a powerful antagonist because of the way its most diabolical skill is attacking people psychologically, whether that’s creating chaos through deception, or by openly mocking a person’s efforts in the most grating way possible in order to compromise their self perception.

As for the role of heroes in a digital world, Gatchaman Crowds reminds me somewhat of Tiger and Bunny, but whereas that series explores the image of heroes with respect to mass media, Gatchaman Crowds explores it with respect to “media of the masses.” In particular, it looks at the concept of gamification, an idea that’s been gaining traction lately, which posits that much can be accomplished if you turn tasks and activities into “games” complete with points and high scores and such, from regular exercise to organizing files for your company. One of the key drawbacks of the concept of gamification is that it appears to imply that people are less capable of accomplishing something if there isn’t a carrot dangling in front, and Gatchaman Crowds asks the viewer to look at this from both sides. Rui’s desire to “update” the world hinges on an almost socialist view of the modern masses in which proletariat and capitalist are able to work together.

Overall, if you really want an anime that encourages you to think, then check out Gatchaman Crowds. It’s thoughtful without getting bogged down by the weight of its ideas, and even if you don’t agree with its conclusions, I think it’s still worth ruminating over what it has to say. You can watch the show for free on Crunchyroll.