Performative Nuance

Perverse afforances

Maybe twitter isn’t the place for this

–anon, 2007, probably

Twitter sucks as a place to talk about serious things(yes, even threads suck), sucks for oppressed people, sucks for anything except cat pics, porn, and speculating about Russian conspiracies.

It’s half decent at spreading links, and very good at live news, if you have a discerning eye for photoshop.

It’s really really bad at nuance.

Facebook is the same. So is any social network I can think to name.

Which would be less of a problem, even a good feature, if the rest of our culture encouraged slow, careful thought. It doesn’t. If it did, we’d have designed websites that were good at that. Websites are part of, and reflect, our culture.

Anyway, the culture (of the western/capitalist/etc world, at least) that I exist in really doesn’t encourage pausing, verifying, or considering other points of view before hitting the retweet button. How we got here, and the shape of this culture is well beyond the scope of this post(try zeynep), but if I scope it down a bit, to talking about the afforances of our websites, and queer disposability, I think something useful might be possible.

Afordances of the media

Social media sites optimise for ad views, for content that will hold the attention and spread far and fast.

Long form journalism, for example, is much harder to monetize than a tweet or facebook post- there’s no social media site with a lower character limit.

This is done in a few ways, and has been since the dawn of the internet– SEO was the first steps in this direction, when we put machines in charge of deciding what people would find relevant. Those machines grew opinions about what content was good- short paragraphs, lots of links, keep it within a certain length, mark it on emotive language.

Then, social media became a thing, and similar algorithms came to the same conclusions-show people more of what other people have clicked on and shared, less of what doesn’t get engagement. In other words, reproduce the culture, and emphasize it.

The affordances aren’t just explicit, in the form of content getting shown or not shown. Twitter puts upper limits on characters. Even screens, horizontal(video good) and in color(pictures good, text bad) have effects. Remember the fuss when the broadsheets started changing form to smaller sizes? How people fretted about the changes the form factor would bring to the journalism? Those issues of form were tiny compared to a website redesign, and we let that go virtually uncommented.

This is not, inherently a problem- the technology is acting out the whims of its creators. If the creators had good whims, we could use them to encourage different parts of our culture, discourage others. Edit, as we used to call it in the old days. Have a good old fashioned culture war, edit(ing algorithm) vs edit(or).

But this culture war was already lost, because the editors were programmed by venture capitalists. Who want ad clicks, and little else.

The rules of content

Producing content that spreads far and fast has a few rules to it(an incomplete list):

There’s rules of form-

and rules about the content itself:

Warped Discourse

When we consider them with respect to “lefty” or “social justice” social media, the effects become quite evident in how these rules, built on the affordances of the platforms, become apparent.

Consider, someone has posted a bad thing on twitter.

Consider Personalizing the story, making it about a single persons actions, who can then be dismissed as evil(call to action: share the content, unfollow them).

Now consider the opposite- Depersonalize the story(remove emotion), consider the institutions and patterns that form it(wow, it’s getting longer). Consider we don’t know everything(you’re no longer authoritative) and the context of their actions(still longer). Accept there’s no simple solution(even less authority). Call for a change to the material conditions that made a person act this way, and not for their punishment(wow, that’s…a tough call to action).

Maybe, don’t even say anything, and accept that what this rando on twitter did wrong maybe isn’t that useful.

Which one produces a better world?

Which one does the platform want you to post?

Which one generates more ad clicks?

Clicks feed people

At the end of the day, having a big following on twitter dot com is not a surefire way to feed yourself. But, for many, it can be. It’ll certainly help when your fundraiser comes around. Producing a better world, taking the time, does not fill fundraisers or patreons. We’ve seen this in extreme cases with the #resitance and Russia detectives, but we learnt the wrong lesson.

The lesson isn’t that liberals and dirtbag lefty types are fundamentally stupid, or weak to bad arguments. There are people out there covering the Russia story, and even liberal resistance to trump, with care and detail and without absurd conspiracies. But eric garlands content brings in the clicks, and is easier to share.

Literally, poverty among the left encourages this behavior. Asking people to swear off what brings them clicks, which puts food in their mouths, is not effective. Judging people for that probably means you have a high paid tech job. The solution is not going to be individual change.

Outrage-disposability is a process, not an action

It’s possible then, to understand the outrage-disposability machine is a product of the affordances of the platforms, not a series of personal failings that will be solved by personally moving towards “calling in” or forgiveness of peoples wrongs. This in turn is a product of the wider forces of capital- ad clicks good, shareable good.

Resisting these pressures is possible, and admirable- Calling in is a far better practice than calling out, but you can make a few thousand followers who’ll donate to fundraisers by simply taking the piss out of weird men in comments section.

Neither of these is more virtuous than another- you gotta do what you can to survive, and if that’s how you do it, that’s cool.

The issue that needs solving isn’t shouting at people building social capital by shouting at biggots or randomly disposing of people based on perceived minor wrongs, but the systems and affordances that make this the only way to succeed.

But don’t act like a dick if you can help it.