Friday, 2 November 2018

Idiot Summer

An Indian Summer is a brief reappearance of warm weather after the first frost. This week has felt like a less welcome reprise of the political silly season, when the news is dominated by chaff during the parliamentary recess. An idiot summer, perhaps. Despite the high theatre of a budget, and despite the best efforts of the usual suspects to revive that feelgood hit of the summer, "Labour at war", more ink appears to have been spilt over the inanity of a supermarket magazine editor losing his job for being disobliging about vegans. That the week has closed with a report that David Cameron is "bored shitless" and considering a return to the House of Commons (the views of prospective voters on the matter seem to be irrelevant) suggests that British politics is becalmed as we all await the coming storm of the Brexit denouement. I could add to this pile of non-stories the rumour that Twitter is thinking about retiring the like button, but instead I'm going to treat it as an excuse for a slightly more serious discussion about our attitudes towards digital property and the antisocial behaviour known as "blocking".

Noah Smith made the point that the like button is not only a handy way of signalling approval, or acknowledging a reply without cluttering up people's feeds, but it is also the only structural support for positivity on a platform that for many is blighted by what he describes as "ambient negativity". What particularly caught my eye was his suggestion that "From conversations with Twitter employees assigned to stop abuse, it seems to me that their main worry isn’t the negativity or threats on the platform. Instead, what frightens them most is the idea that Twitter might be used to create echo chambers, where like-minded people aren’t exposed to contrary viewpoints". The problem with this interpretation is that there is no lack of evidence that online echo chambers are a myth. Jack Dorsey may well subscribe to that myth, but it seems obvious to me that this is because it provides a useful justification for seeding timelines with "alternative viewpoints" - in other words, over-riding the user's own curatorial control to promote recommended (and possibly sponsored) content.

My own view is that Twitter is the best mass-use social media platform currently available, largely because it is the one that most closely approximates real world interactions in all their messy glory. For me, the relentless jeering, preening and snark is evidence of the platform's humanity. For many these characteristics are evidence of its irremediable vulgarity and subversion of social norms, but it is important to remember that those critics are talking about the manners of its users (i.e. the common herd) rather than the technology. Noah is clearly a fan of Twitter, as evidenced by his frequent use (155k tweets since 2011) but his suggestions on how to improve it are an uneasy combination of reasonable changes to usability and a questionable reinforcement of restrictive property rights. He makes three proposals: first, if you block a user, his tweets should no longer be visible to third parties in the replies to your tweets; second, users should be able to lock individual tweets, closing them to replies and so preventing a pile-on; and third, there should be an option to view a list of other users who have quote-tweeted you recently.

The first is retrospective blocking. Users who you block will not only be prevented from reading your tweets in future, but their replies will be removed from your historical threads. Deleting those replies outright would be easy enough to do, but that would mean erasing the blocked user's own "speech", which would be an infringement of their intellectual property rights. Preserving the replies but suppressing their appearance in a particular thread would be technically costly to achieve because it depends on a particular intersection of two user IDs that has to be dynamically checked. It also raises the same "airbrushing" problem associated with the call for an edit button. If a third party quote-retweeted the reply of a subsequently blocked user to your tweet, should that historical record also be amended so rendering it meaningless? The second proposal enables Twitter to be used for broadcasting (you can potentially do this already if you set up a random code as a muted word and include this in the tweet body - this doesn't prevent replies but you won't see them in your notifications). The third proposal is essentially a canned search to support those who wish to block disobliging quote-tweeters (you can already see quote-tweets by searching for "[handle] -from:[handle]").

The root issue is one of property rights. At present, any user has the ultimate sanction over their own tweets of deletion, but Noah's proposal would extend this to deleting the tweets of others where they are linked (as replies) to yours. The assumption is that a respondent partially cedes his own rights when he adds to a thread that you originated. Noah justifies this by a parallel with blog owners who can control comments to a post, however this isn't persuasive because in the case of a blog there remains only the one instance of the post. With Twitter, a retweet or quote-retweet creates a new instance not only of the tweet but effectively of the thread. It is also moot whether ownership of an entire thread vests with the author of the original tweet or whether that ownership becomes multiple once others post replies. To turn Noah's parallel on its head, a blog owner can delete hostile comments but she cannot prevent the commenter from incorporating the post into another medium (e.g. a screenshot on Instagram) for disparaging quotation. Selectively turning off replies is reasonable, just as it is when a blog owner chooses to turn off comments  on a particular post (though I think muting should be sufficient on Twitter), but I'm not persuaded of the need to selectively prevent retweets.

My own prescriptions for Twitter head in a different direction, away from the sanctity of property. Twitter isn't built for closed networks and can only realistically prosper as a public medium, so its design ought to privilege public rather than private rights. If you want to exert greater control over your statements and the responses to them then you should stick to a blog. For example, while I would retain the ability to mute users I would drop the ability to block them (I've never blocked anyone, but then I am both obscure and devil-may-care). Allowing users to block others at will, often for the most trivial or arbitrary reasons, is performative authoritarianism (that some users seem to get a thrill out of telling their followers that they have blocked someone strikes me as unhealthy and akin to the bullying that they otherwise decry). I don't object to being muted (we have a right to speak but not a right to be heard) but I do object to being told that there are statements in a de facto public realm that I have been explicitly barred from seeing (for the record, I can only think of one person who has blocked me - and I'm still not sure why he did it - so this is a theoretical concern more than a practical one).

There is a general consensus that online harassment and bullying is anti-social, but this is sloppy thinking. Such behaviour is actually social, just as mobs are by definition social entities. The reason we should object to bullying and harassment is that it aims to isolate individuals from society, in the same way that the playground bully seeks to isolate his victim from the sympathy of the crowd. The real anti-social behaviour is blocking, as it seeks to reconstitute society in the image of the individual. To emphasise again: everyone has the right to ignore arseholes (or even the mildly annoying) online, just as you could avoid someone in the offline world, but none of us has the right to impose our own view of who constitutes an acceptable public. You take the public as you find it. Just as the demand for an edit button is a retrograde attempt to control history that has the result of degrading the online "memory" of other users without their permission, so erasing the visible speech of those you have blocked is simply the petty exercise of the power of a tyrant and the digital equivalent of the oubliette.

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