208 Spring 2012
Meanland: the radical terrain of social media
In the discussion about Left activism and Twitter, the social media service is mostly described as a ‘tool’ that is more or less useful to accomplishing organisational goals. Whether it’s advocates who see Twitter levelling a communications playing field or detractors who see only a corporate distraction, both imagine an instrument. But Twitter isn’t a map – it’s a territory. Rather than a megaphone or a flier, Twitter is a global city made of text. The tools that users put to work are no more or less than language – somewhat extra functional as hypertext or Unicode – but in a particular field of communication.
Figuring out how to walk through a city made of words is about relearning to talk. We can’t afford to think of the platform the way bosses instruct their social media interns – ‘Can you go on Twitter and make this viral before lunch?’ – instead, we have to study this new terrain’s unstable ground. So far the theorisation of Twitter has mostly occurred at a high level of abstraction away from the actual interactions that occur on the network, and filtered through a faulty digital-dualist frame the separates ‘real’ and online life. In an effort to buck that trend, what follows are four Twitter case studies: two first-person, one I observed and one I only read about after the fact. It’s only by studying the actual content of these communications that the Left might walk the terrain on steady legs.
In the early days of Occupy Wall Street, some friends and I dreamed up a plan to get more people to occupy Zuccotti Park by spreading rumours about a Radiohead concert. In a blog post for the centre-Left magazine Jacobin, I implied that I had heard the band (whose members were in town playing a very well publicised, very sold out couple of gigs) was going to show up and do a few songs in support of the protesters. Without Twitter, it probably would have ended there, an aborted plan as inside joke. But it didn’t.
Instead, Gawker staff writer (and now friend) Adrian Chen happened on my post and tweeted it out with a note to the effect of: ‘Some delusional guy thinks Radiohead is going to show up at Occupy – yeah right.’ Being a narcissist, I was tracking tweeted links to my article. This was my one shot, and I tweeted at him that I didn’t know how far-fetched it was considering the band was ‘really political’. Gawker, like a lot of news blogs, is more concerned with page views than reporting verified facts. As long as reporting’s framed as a rumour, then it can only be false if the rumour fails to resonate. As long as people repeat it, the rumour becomes a self-fulfilling story. Adrian direct messaged me asking for updates if I heard anything further.
I secured a Gmail address with one of the band’s manager’s names and emailed the Occupy Wall Street Arts and Culture Committee to try to set up a performance to be announced the next day at noon. With that in place, I direct messaged Adrian to tell him what I knew to be true: the Arts and Culture Committee would declare the special musical guest Radiohead the next day at noon. But it didn’t take that long. The next morning Adrian posted the rumour on Gawker and the internet went mad. I tracked keywords on Twitter and watched the rumour’s viral spread. NYLON magazine tweeted it to hundreds of thousands of followers, then Russell Simmons to over a million. The rumour wasn’t true, but it was there – and that was good enough to report. And good enough to get a few thousand people to the park, almost none of whom would admit to actually thinking the band was going to show, and many of whom returned in the months following. The rumour offered something a band-confirmed appearance wouldn’t have: an event, something that might or might not happen.
Twitter makes it almost effortless to forward information, and the common profile disclaimer ‘RTs are not endorsements’ insulates the tweeter’s credibility. They weren’t saying Radiohead was showing up, just that Gawker was saying some other people were saying Radiohead was showing up. As the frequent premature ‘Twitter deaths’ illustrate, users don’t collectively require evidence to create a rumour, just a plausible and compelling story. The best tweeters aren’t admired for their reporting skill, but for their ability to speak from a world slightly different to reality, worlds that reveal the injustices, absurdities and contradictions of objective reports. Asking for true tweets is like asking for true paintings. But now the connection between Twitter and less traditional online news outlets is such that a big enough rumour on Twitter is itself news. And with more traditional outlets terrified of losing a good scoop to Gawker, the distance between gossip and fact has never been smaller. Some parts of the Left tend to complain about this as a symptom of our bankrupt media culture, but if we’re to manoeuvre this new terrain, we can’t be moralists about temporary facts. It’s not suitable for the format.
On 11 October 2011, I was arrested along with over seven hundred other people on the Brooklyn Bridge as part of an Occupy Wall Street mobilisation. The Manhattan District Attorney charged me with disorderly conduct, the lowest possible violation on the books. But despite the low stakes, the DA’s office in the course of their investigation subpoenaed Twitter for my account details, seeking to verify and introduce as evidence against me tweets that the prosecutors allege conflict with my anticipated defence. The state has argued that the account does not belong to me and therefore I have no right to intervene on my own behalf to dispute the subpoena. At the time of writing, the judge has agreed with the prosecution, though Twitter has stepped in to support my right to defend the account from the prying eyes of government.
What started as a traffic ticket has spiralled into a test case on internet privacy, but I’m not a lawyer or a judge – I’m a defendant – so I don’t want to deal with as-yet unresolved legal issues. Instead I want to describe the reckless prodding I did at the edges of Twitter identity – mostly, I should add, against the good advice of my talented, patient and forgiving volunteer legal team. The law doesn’t know how to treat Twitter, at least in part because we don’t know all the ways to use it yet. Some of us are aware of the system’s rules but, as Wittgenstein argues, rules can’t describe every in-game behaviour.
When Twitter forwarded me the first subpoena (which the DA’s office asked the company not to disclose), it was targeted at the account
@destructuremal, which was said to be operated by one Malcolm Harris. But one of the main reasons the prosecutors filed a subpoena (rather than just printing out pages of my unprotected tweets and waving them in my face come my trial date) was to verify the account was mine through the user details that aren’t publicly available. Just because the account has my name and picture on it doesn’t mean it’s mine – after all, celebrities attract parody accounts that display their names and pictures, too.
After tweeting out the subpoena document, I dropped the user name @destructuremal and switched my account name to @getsworse. Another user picked up @destructuremal, kept my name but changed the picture to an attractive woman’s torso, and started tweeting what I have to admit was solid mockery of me. Twitter allows you to change your user name without losing any of the rest of your account history, so I could maintain my followers while changing the one useful piece of information that the state actually had. In fact, Twitter allows you to change all the information the user has access to without actually changing the account. There must be, for lack of a better word, a soul to every Twitter account, a piece of information that doesn’t change even if everything else about the account does. But these numbers are hidden somewhere on a server, and if the government wants them, it has to know what to ask for.
Weeks after I changed my account name, the DA’s office issued another subpoena that was more narrowly tailored with regard to the information it was seeking (it specified only public tweets and verifying account details, not private DMs), but this time it was targeted at @getsworse. At a pre-trial motions hearing, the Assistant DA prosecuting my case complained that I was trying to frustrate the subpoena by changing my user name, but since he was simultaneously claiming I had no privacy or proprietary interests in the accounts and shouldn’t have even heard about the subpoena in the first place, this didn’t seem like a strong argument, and the judge wasn’t overly troubled. So when Twitter forwarded me the second subpoena, I tweeted out Facebook pictures from the prosecutor’s law school prom (he had, after all, argued that unprotected information on the internet was communication presumably directed at literally everyone), and changed my user name to @ADALeeLangston in his honour.
Shortly after, on the pleading advice of my attorney, I changed it again to @BigMeanInternet.
But during this whole time, the court was still ruling on the subpoena directed at the account @destructuremal. So if both my and Twitter’s motion and appeals fail and the court compels Twitter to turn over the requested account details, I’m not confident anyone can tell me what will happen. There’s a decent possibility that prosecutors could be left with nothing more than a bunch of pictures of an unknown woman’s breasts. As it stands, there’s nothing in the document that would lead Twitter to my current account any more than any of the accounts operated by various Malcolm Harrises, including a famous fashion designer and a lady-killing teenage soccer phenom. Unless the social media giant is over-eager to cooperate with the prosecution – and so far they’ve been significantly less than so – I don’t know how any prosecutor’s office could successfully subpoena a Twitter account that has no permanent accessible characteristics.
I was never trying to evade the subpoena (as I’ve mentioned, the possible consequences are minor). I’ve been much more interested in feeling out the contours of the avatar I use to walk through this space. Users can vanish without a visible trace in a second. I imagine if they switched their account name right before deleting it and registered the old name as a dummy user with the same information, even the state would have a hard time knowing what to ask for. Twitter is unlike flesh space in that a) you can change your name whenever you want and b) there’s an external system that secures each name to a user and respects your nominal choices as soon as you make them. So there is a @destructuremal ostensibly operated by a Malcolm Harris, but from minute to minute it could be anyone. By the time the subpoena goes through, they could be in Indonesia or be a child or a robot or an empty shell of useless data. In Twitter you never need be more than a name, and you can change it whenever you want.
The account @Anti_Racism_Dog didn’t last long. Twitter suspended it quickly, a fate reserved only for the most aggressive, abusive and hateful users. What could a dog – an anti-racist one, at that – do to deserve it? @Anti_Racism_Dog had one real function: to bark at racist speech on Twitter. The account responded to tweets it deemed racist with the simple response ‘bark bark bark!’ Sometimes it would send wags to supporters but that was pretty much it.
For the short time it lasted, it was amazing to watch how people reacted to @Anti_Racism_Dog. The account would respond mostly to what the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva would call ‘colour-blind racism’, that is, racisms that are generally right-libertarian in orientation and justified through appeals to supposedly objective discourses like science and statistics. It’s a notoriously insidious white-supremacist ideology, a virulent strain evolved specifically to resist anti-racist language. Colour-blind racism defends itself by appeals to neutrality and meritocracy, accusing its adversaries of being ‘the real racists’. Although its moves are predictable, they’re hard to combat rhetorically since they’re able to ingest the conventional opposition scripts. Colour-blind racists feed on good-faith debate, and engaging with them, especially online, is almost always futile. But when they’re barked at by a dog, one whose only quality is anti-racism, they flip the fuck out. They demand to be engaged in debate (‘Tell me how what I said was racist!’) or appeal to objective definitions (‘The dictionary says racist means X, therefore nothing I said was racist’), but @Anti_Racism_Dog just barks.
@Anti_Racism_Dog inverted the usual balance of energy in online dialogs about race. Precisely because the dominant global discourse is white-supremacist, it is rhetorically easier to make a racist argument than an anti-racist one. Look at almost any comment thread or discussion board about race and you can see anti-racists working laboriously to be convincing and to play on their opponents’ ‘logical’ turf, and racists repeating the same simple lines they were taught (‘I didn’t own slaves’, ‘I’m just stating the facts’, ‘The Irish were persecuted too’, etc.) ‘Trolling’ as a certain kind of internet harassment is tied to time: the successful troll expends much less time and energy on the interaction than their targets do. It’s the most micro of micro-politics, an interpersonal tug of war for the only thing that matters. But have you ever played tug of war with a dog?
A true troll doesn’t have a position to protect because to establish one would leave it vulnerable to attack, and playing defence takes time. @Anti_Racism_Dog, by fully assuming the persona of an animal, was invulnerable to counter-attack. You can’t explain yourself to a dog and you look like an idiot trying. The only way to win is not to play but this is the colour-blind racist’s Achilles Heel: they’re compelled to defend themselves against accusations of racism. It’s the anti-racist argument that gives them content; theirs is an ideology that’s in large part a list of counter-arguments. After all, white-supremacists are already winning – their task now is to keep the same racist structures in place while making plausibly colour-blind arguments against dismantling them. @Anti_Racism_Dog was empty of anything other than accusation and so left its targets sputtering.
The account served a second purpose: as a sort of anti-racist hunting dog. @Anti_Racism_Dog quickly attracted a lot of like-minded followers who understood the dynamics at play. Whenever it would start barking at another user, this was a cue to the dog’s followers to troll the offender as well. There’s only so much one dog can do alone. Colour-blind racism is particularly dangerous because it isn’t immediately visible as such. It provokes good-faith discussion from liberals about what counts as racism, muddying the water. But @Anti_Racism_Dog’s strategy draws new lines about what constitutes acceptable discourse on race, placing colour-blind racists on the other side by speaking to them like an animal. What would be taken as totally insane in flesh space can be infuriatingly clever online.
Actor Brian Presley must have thought he hit the jackpot, getting seated next to a beautiful model on his red-eye flight. He wasted no time getting to work, forcing a one-sided conversation with the woman about his career and deep thoughts and why he wore a wedding ring despite being single (he ‘liked it’). It’s incredibly common for women to receive this kind of unwanted attention, and a flight is a particularly uncomfortable place for it. She’s strapped in close, can’t just get up and leave the conversation, and can’t appeal to the outside for a change of seat without inviting speculation as to what her problem is and whether or not she is a crazy bitch blowing things way out of proportion. As a stranger, she can’t impact his actual life. And even if she figured out who he was, who would believe her? Or at least that’s what Presley seems to have thought.
Usually a woman in a situation like the one described has one best option: silence. If all she wants is to be left alone, odds are she’s not going to get it by engaging with her harasser or with unaffiliated third parties. This is why a common element of this kind of harassment is for the man to attempt to engage the woman in a conversation about why she won’t talk with him. But the model sitting next to Presley was Melissa Stetten, and she was armed with in-flight wifi and
15 000 Twitter followers. When she started tweeting details about the guy bothering her on the plane, one of Stetten’s followers constructed the fact-pattern and correctly identified Presley as her unwelcome fellow traveller, something which she then confirmed. His lies unravelled online for everyone to see: the ‘officially sober’ Presley had drunk three beers, the man making a pass at her was ‘happily’ married with a young son, as well as being deeply religious. By the end of the flight he had lost more than he could have imagined.
‘Did I just ruin Brian Presley’s life via Twitter?’ Stetten asked her followers. When the gossip sites picked up the story, she certainly had.
It wasn’t just that Stetten had access to IMDB to figure out that Presley was a liar – her tweets indicate she wasn’t taken in with his clever ‘I like it’ wedding ring ploy. More importantly, she had 15 000 followers inclined to trust what she was saying. On a normal playing field, the burden would be on her to prove he wasn’t just being friendly (which is of course what he later claimed on his Facebook page). Women don’t have any legal recourse against this sort of unwanted attention, and extra-legal solutions as often as not make the situation worse. Like colour-blind racism, good-faith discussions about whether or not this behaviour is ‘objectively’ sexual harassment generally makes the harassment more resilient. But on Twitter, she could construct her narrative in real time and be believed, reversing the consequences of a one-way conversation with one of her own. Stetten’s feelings of harassment (which is what being harassed entails) became true before Presley had a chance to throw them into question and dodge the accusation.
Trying to graft a representative politics onto Twitterland may not be pointless – every political party has to have an account or twenty – but it misses the real potential. Humans have been zoon politikon (political beings) since before Aristotle said so, but the rules and spaces of those interactions always change. Twitter means we can be in two places at once, speaking in as many voices with as many faces as we can manage. But it’s not for proclaiming: even @JustinBieber talks back and forth with friends and fans. Twitter’s largest implications are micropolitical, changing the rules of our interpersonal collisions.
There are treacherous aspects of this new space, governed as it is by a profit-driven corporation. Some elements reinforce current power imbalances but there are significant potentials that we – not as members of any organisation, but as individuals with friends and enemies in common – can exploit. That Twitter comes about at around the same time as a wave of ostensibly leaderless revolts around the world has less to say about the causal relation between the two than about the kind of people who would engage in both. Twitter allows affinity (or animosity) to collapse distances. A fundamental anonymity means names stand not for individuals, but for contingent singularities, subjects that are not who but what they say. They attract attention to fake concerts and real demonstrations (not to mention products), but also to harassment and hate speech which are reinforcing elements of racism and misogyny. Structural injustices thrive when the micro-interactions that constitute them are hidden from view – a younger generation used to publishing everything might be less vulnerable to silencing tactics.
When teenagers get harassed by police, it’s not uncommon for bystanders to reach for their phones and begin recording. Depending on who’s being bothered, the call for help might be ‘YouTube!’ or ‘WorldStar!’, but the message is clear: the whole world will be watching. The more that smartphones become integrated into daily life (and there’s still plenty further to go), the more this will happen. Whether it’s done when cuffed in a station or at other moments of vulnerability, escaping to the internet in voice (if not body) can, on occasion, provide a measure of safety, and even power. Twitter isn’t a voice for the voiceless, but done right it provides a ready field of listeners – and that can make all the difference.