Where are the good conversations at? That was the core currency of the internet: newsgroups and bulletin boards, then blogs and forums, then social media and comment sections. And now it’s all gone.
Facebook is an unworkable mess, burying the things your friends say beneath piles of engagement-bait posts from groups you don’t follow or care about. Twitter is a collapsing building full of grifters and fascists. TikTok is linear TV for the algorithmic era. Comment sections are feral or gone because moderation cost too much (not to mention most of the good sites that hosted them have been stripped for parts, pour one out for the AVClub). Blogs are dead because outbound links are buried by every algorithm and RSS has been systematically strangled. There are a few dark-forest forums on discord and slack, and of course group chats, hidden spaces that only work well if participants are limited, and that’s about it.
Substack isn’t going to do it, either. We spent ten years getting all that stuff out of our email inbox, that pendulum isn’t going to swing back that far.
It didn’t have to be like this. But at least some awful people got very rich along the way.
Twitter is entering its end phase. Probably. It might make it through the early messy stages of the Elon Musk era and find some new stability, anything is possible, but it doesn’t seem likely. Life-integrated services like Twitter exist most importantly in the perceptions of users, as an idea we hold on to; that idea has curdled. I think it’s slowly making the journey to the elephant’s graveyard, like G Plus and Livejournal and MySpace and Bebo did before it. And it makes me sad.
Twitter is special. Yes, everyone regularly calls it a hellsite, and not in an affectionate way; it has damaged important things. But it also offers some wonders that can’t really be replicated anywhere else. I think they’ll be just gone. And yes, that’s okay, because nothing should last forever, but it makes me sad.
The core of twitter is the feed, an endless scroll of snackable comments. It’s a bit like one of those cutaway drawings of a huge building or an enormous ship; as I scroll I see glimpses into dozens of ongoing conversations, lots of different moments happening all at once. I always love those cutaway drawings!
(An aside: throughout twitter’s history the feed has been a battleground. Twitter has tried various ways to make the feed serve their engagement metrics, which ends up with the service sticking random provocative stuff in front of you, showing stuff wildly out of order based on its guesses about what will be most exciting, and hiding content from people you indicated you want to follow because the algorithm reckons it’s boring. Only recently did Twitter finally concede and allow a simple chronological feed, which is by far my preference. But most people don’t jump through the hoop of figuring out the chronological feed; Twitter’s algorithm retains huge power over what gets seen and what doesn’t.
A frustrating example: Twitter has always downgraded or buried outbound links. It doesn’t want users leaving the site, so the algorithm hides them. It’s honestly an embarrassing and cowardly strategy, one shared by Facebook, which does exactly the same thing. The internet is made of links!)
The fundamental conflict in Twitter exists between the feed, friends and interesting accounts I have curated into an ongoing scroll of things I care about, and the swarming fools and villains who want to disrupt it and devour my attention. Call them locusts. They have been out of control since 2016. The dismal chaos of that year didn’t just depress everyone, it also marked a huge and continuing surge in locust behaviour, from Trump fans, Russian-operated false accounts, and ordinary everyday dickheads.
After 2016, it seemed like Twitter was always agitated. There was a lot of heat everywhere in the system, and things boiled over quickly. This continues to this day, as anti-democratic forces and those aforementioned dickheads eagerly increase friction and stoke rage wherever they can, using a playbook first honed in the horrible Gamergate mess, such as overloading replies and weaponising context collapse. This also makes non-locust users less tolerable, as tempers run hot, the attention economy contracts, and people chase engagement with self-aggrandizing performative rage that gives the algorithm exactly what it wants.
Even as Twitter became a constant warzone, with the feed eternally besieged by the locusts, and clout-chasers amassing large followings for truly annoying behaviour, I stayed. Twitter offered things I loved, even then. Its enormous reach and its pulsing concern with the moment remained undimmed. Its borderless interconnectivity brings the network effect to brilliant life, as ideas surge at incredible speeds across the frictionless flat plain of users. It is the channel of choice for information: journalists and scientists and pundits all make their home there. It was, and probably still is, the best way to take a sounding on what matters out there in the world. When there is a new development in climate science or politics, the climate people in my feed are busy with thoughts and responses; when domestic politics takes a surprising turn, my local political people are all over it; when major news unfolds anywhere, everyone takes note, and good resources quickly filter through the feed.
Twitter’s enormous scale also allowed rich subcultures and subcommunities to thrive, and the flat plain of connectivity allows that richness to surface into my feed regularly in countless unpredictable ways. Feminist Twitter, Black Twitter, Irish Twitter, Indigenous Twitter, Native American Twitter, Trans Twitter, African Twitter, and of course Māori Twitter and Pasifika Twitter are all thick networks full of human interaction, and I quickly understood when encountering them that the best thing to do was shut the hell up and pay attention. To say that my decade-plus on the bird site has been life-changing is to undersell it; I have been profoundly transformed by the privilege of witnessing up-close the conversations, concerns, arguments, jokes, celebrations and fury of communities of which I am not part. I’ve learned a huge amount, and I can honestly say I don’t know how else I could have learned so much.
Still, it’s undeniable that the public square of Twitter has become generally unpleasant. As a general trend for some time, users have been moving into “dark forest” spaces, away from public view, where “depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments“. Discords and Slacks are where many people spend their online energy these days, in an echo of the old internet forum days. (And some of the old big forums are still standing, hey big purple!) The current Musk crisis has led to crowds trying out Mastodon, which is similar to Twitter but instead of being an endless flat plain, it’s more like an enormous collection of community valleys separated by hills. The flow between and across them is slowed. This is intentional! For one thing, that open plain of Twitter suited the locusts beautifully, and Mastodon doesn’t want them. It is not a one-to-one replacement for Twitter, but a reimagined experience, intended as a more considerate, thoughtful, friendly, and local space. I am enjoying the energy among Kiwi Twitter migrants, and it seems there’s enough momentum for Mastodon to become an established community. Find me at @email@example.com
(I recall that I originally joined Mastodon in 2017, on an instance that is long gone, and whose domain name now redirects to, er, adult content. It didn’t have that critical mass of users then. It sure seems to now!)
In any case, I’m not walking out on Twitter yet. I have connections there that don’t exist in any other medium, and probably can’t. I value the good aspects of this enormous, vexing, variable service. I’ll be there as it copes with these new challenges, and I do expect it’s a death watch. Already it feels different; locusts everywhere, and the main topic of conversation how it’s all coming to an end.
I hope Musk loses interest soon, and I hope Twitter survives. If it doesn’t, I’ll miss it. At the very least I’ll post about it on Facebook.
(Also, there was that time pre-fame Brett Goldstein said to me, “hope you’re well”, so. Twitter was good sometimes.)
I expanded the first chunk of that last post into a longer piece for the Ruminator: Rape is easy here.
It’s another example of how I’m using the existence of the Ruminator as a prompt and motivator for a different style of writing, with a different set of goals. (e.g. I write here often for myself, whereas there I often write to whatever audience I imagine.) I’m very pleased to be a contributor to the Ruminator and intend to keep sending them content.
The Ruminator is also fundraising. In theory “pay our writers” is part of the goal but I’ll just be happy if it covers the ongoing costs of hosting and registration. If you like what the Ruminator is doing, you might want to send a few virtual coins its way…
Yesterday turned out to be an interesting day. There was winning at basketball, which happens rarely enough these days that it’s a happy moment indeed. There was completing the serialisation of “in move”, my teenage-boys-in-the-Hutt novel, about which more soon (I need to get the ebook version prepared for release). There was getting a heat pump installed, hurrah for that. But the big thing was Pink vs Blue.
Pink vs Blue was a post I wrote over at The Ruminator. It’s about how being a dad to a little girl has given me some new avenues for thinking about the way our culture codes and scripts gender in a really limiting way. I spent a while scooping together lots of bits and pieces I’d been thinking and feeling for a while, and lined them up in what I hoped was an illuminating way.
As usual with this sort of stuff, the writing of it is also the thinking about it – I look for turns of phrase or metaphors or rhetorical flourishes that feel like they help me understand. Like if I can just line up the words in the right way, I’ll unlock some hidden secret. Sometimes it does feel like that.
Anyway, I’m pretty proud of this post, because it’s very personal and also very general, and I tried hard to get it right. It’s taken off in a moderate sort of way, lots of shares by people I’ve never heard of. Easily the most widely circulated thing I’ve ever written (excepting that time I cut and pasted a few Wikileaks tweets and added the words “this is interesting” and it went crazy on Reddit).
You can find it here. I hope you’ll have a read, and if you are so moved, do pass it on to anyone else who might be interested.
I miss being able to blog about things in the world. Writing here helps me process and understand things. My comprehension of reality has reduced while I’ve been busy. Anyway, to spare you lengthy tortured posts, here’s some quick thoughts.
Shipwreck: A ship on a reef leaking oil, and the election just changed again. Our PM is under pressure from the media for a change, and he’s not coping. Key has been protected from tough questions his entire premiership for this reason – he can’t handle the pressure while keeping his smiling “nice Mr Keys” persona going. It won’t cause a huge desertion of the National party by voters, but expect Key’s preferred PM #s to drop and the Greens to continue to gather up votes.
OvalBall: I’ve never seen our country like this. The Rugby World Cup really has become a national celebration (even as the promised economic benefits fail to appear, SURPRISE). When we roadtripped up to Hastings and back a few weeks ago, the whole route was lined with festive signs. All Blacks flags in so many windows, flying from so many cars. And so many other flags! And every little town dressing up in global-village finery for the visiting rugby teams. A genuine spirit of love for the game, huge applause for the little-guy teams when they play well. It’s quite a wonderful atmosphere. I’m genuinely delighted. (Of course, if the All Blacks lose to Australia this weekend, there’ll be… well, not riots. But it will be rough. And hard to avoid even if you care not one tiny fig about rugby.)
Occupy: Yes yes, the Occupy Wall St movement has a vast overrepresentation of university-educated hipsters, and elides differences between middle class and working class, and hasn’t articulated unifying principles, and harbours madness on its fringes. It is important to note all of these things. But for heaven’s sake, don’t mistake these concerns for justifications not to celebrate the appearance of a genuine grass-roots societal justice movement that is driving the conversation in the US. (The US being the society whose abject brokenness all other Western societies are striving so hard to match.) There isn’t a completely different movement that does a better job waiting in the wings. This is the shot we get. Wish it well.
Who: loved Matt Smith’s performance this season of Doctor Who, but my enthusiasm for the show as a whole is at a very low ebb. Moffat as showrunner has lost me completely. His big villains are a complete failure of storytelling craft, and the more you try to forgive that, the more holes show up elsewhere. I stand by my earlier call: Torchwood season 4 > Doctor Who season 6.
Facebook just reminded me that it’s my birthday shortly. I was genuinely surprised.
In past years I’ve asked people to gift me with a favourite quote, or indeed with any old quote, and add it in comments.
This year I’m going to ask you to contribute a link on Friday, to the usual Friday Linky post. Together, we will cast a magic spell of procrastination that will ensorcel offices throughout the world. So keep your eyes peeled for potential linky goodness.
Here’s one you can’t use because I got it first: Prince Gomolvilas’s vid about the white boy’s Akira that I posted about last week.
This weekend I got to turn a virtual acquaintance into a real-world one (heya Andrew) (also heya Phil) and it got me thinking about where I exist on the internet at the moment.
Obviously: From The Morgue, formerly part of the additiverich collective and now a member of the isprettyawesome crew. Here is for thinking out loud, and talking about media, politics, and things I’ve seen or read. Occasionally I try to be funny. I used to make an effort to blog every weekday, but those days are gone. Isolated personal blogs like this one are on the way out anyway.
And my livejournal, which is only rarely updated. LJ used to be a busy hub of activity but it has been on a long, slow fade for several years now, because isolated personal blogs are on the way out. I’m more self-indulgent on LJ, and will not hesitate to post self-promotion or be incomprehensible. I guess I see LJ as a more forgiving space, content-wise. (From The Morgue is also syndicated to LJ, don’t know who set that up but thanks.)
I’m mr_orgue on Twitter. I don’t tweet much, and when i do it’s mostly just to say “I’ve blogged”, but I reply to other people and re-tweet messages a fair bit. I don’t try to keep up, just drop in and read a bit from time to time. Twitter is a fun time. I’m a bit scared of what it’d be like with a smartphone, though; I only access Twitter from desktop at the moment, but I think it’d be a completely different social experience with constant mobile access.
And of course I’m on Facebook. Facebook is mostly for tracking events, seeing photos and saying happy birthday to people. I’m pretty capricious about accepting friend requests – some days I’ll approve some random friend-of-friend I don’t actually know, other days I’ll refuse someone I’ve met more than a few times. Generally, if I want to say happy birthday to you, I’ll happily be your facebook friend.
Those four sites cover probably 98% of my online presence (outside of RPG-related activity, which is a whole separate issue). I have legacy accounts on MySpace, and WAYN, and probably several other sites I can’t think of right now. And of course there’s my rarely-updated personal site, which I’ve had for over a decade, Apocalypse: A Kind of Revelatory Experience. I should probably let it pass into history, but I like it, and also it hosts the infamous Leon Is A God subsite.
Oh yeah! I’m also on Hoffspace, which is where I ironically celebrate David Hasselhoff. Join me!
Back in July I received an email from someone I didn’t know asking to delete a comment on this blog. The comment dated back several years, to a post where I’d attacked a business, and the owner of the business turned up to argue his perspective (which, I thought, he did with integrity and aplomb, although he didn’t change my mind).
It was a weird email and a weird request and my assumption was that it was a scam. I wrote about it on my livejournal here – pointing out the weirdness. I later tracked down the owner and contacted them to ask if they had authorised this email; they didn’t know about it. So the conclusion was it was some incompetent email-harvesting scam/spam.
Turns out it was for real. I received a followup email today, asking if I’d got their earlier message and asking again to remove the message. I went back to the owner with more info, and this time they confirmed that it was legit, and they’d asked another group to “tidy up a series of internet postings”.
So, leaving aside the weirdness and the unprofessional approach taken by this emailer, I want to consider the request on its face. (It’s why I’m not linking back to the original discussion – who is requesting shouldn’t matter, right?) They asked to remove a comment from an old post. I refused.
My reply was:
First up, I ignored your first message because it looked like spam – you’re using an anonymous gmail address, and gave no sign of any connection to [business owner]. [And more in this vein about how how it was poor communication.]
On to the main point: I’m sorry but I’m not going to remove the comment. I believe in maintaining a complete public record, and indeed I feel a responsibility to do so. The comment is in no way libellous or otherwise legally concerning; indeed, I think [business owner] comes off very well in the exchange.
I would be happy to open up the comments function for the addition of another comment to this post, if that would be of use to you. Adding context or explanation etc. would be welcome. But I will not remove the original comments.
Morgan Davie / From The Morgue
I feel strongly that this is the right approach. I stress that this particular comment conversation was quite innocuous; but the principle of the thing seems dangerous to me.
Am I right, though?
First – who owns the comment that was posted? I don’t exactly have a stated comments policy. It’s on a blog I maintain, was submitted through a process I manage, but it was written by someone else – do they give up rights over their comment as soon as it gets submitted?
Second – should removing past activity on the web ever be okay? What about someone who makes an anti-feminist joke in a comment while young, drunk, and stupid – given the power of google, should that hang over their head the rest of their lives? What if the joke was anti-semitic? What if it was anti-semitic but the commenter convincingly argues that they didn’t understand the racist elements of the joke, they were just repeating it?
In this age of google, where everything we do on the web leaves a trace – must those traces be permanent? Are there no costs to be accounted for, or even mitigated? Obviously my personal view is that the record should be permanent, regardless of the other costs. Am I out of step?
Keen to hear what people have to say. Willpost again if I get further correspondence about this.
The illustrious David R, proprietor of additiverich.com for most of the last decade, is pulling down the blinds. I have migrated over here to isprettyawesome.com, which is run by Svend – who is, happily, another member of the additiverich.com posse.
So I gotta thank Svend for generously welcoming me to his isprettyawesome crew.
And I really gotta thank David for all those years of hosting. Providing a platform for us additiverichers isn’t trivial. There’s updates to install, system conflicts to resolve, the endless march of the spammers to halt, and many more troublesome duties. Not to mention the costs of hosting and hardware and so on. All of this was provided with much generosity and good humour.
When David was first talking about setting up additiverich, back before most people had ever heard of blogs, we discussed a special feature of the site on which we’d collaborate. It never came to pass, like a number of projects we’ve talked about, and it’s a shame. So I want to deliver at least a small part of that project as a thank you to David.
So tomorrow, you’ll be introduced to… the Pantheon of Plastic.