An unintended Twitter hole
"mountains will speak for you rain will flesh your bones" —from "To Those Who Have Lost Everything," Francisco X. Alarcón
(This is a public post for all subscribers. Please be forewarned there are some anti-Semitic and hate tweets—directed at me—below.)
Like too many people, I have been wrapped up in the news about Twitter. I even took thoughts of it this morning up a forest service road to the view above, where I was just about to turn up a hill to look for some deer. Whether the deer were going to be found or not I don’t know—there was plenty of sign, but the snow was almost the crunchiest, noisiest I’ve ever walked on and there was no way I was getting anywhere near them today.
I have a lot of thoughts about Twitter, mixed up with my thoughts about the cryptocurrency crash currently occurring. Do I care about cryptocurrency? Not really. I don’t really care about social media, either, except, like politics, they have effects on all of our lives that we can’t control, whether we use them or not. I haven’t had a social media account (does Substack count?) for years, but not having social media doesn’t stop people from living in the world it helps create, nor from suffering from the hate that can be spread on it.
The podcast Your Undivided Attention had an episode in June 2020 detailing social media’s role in a genocide in Myanmar and the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and the social media-amplified effects of false news stories and misinformation. Their guest also talked about the effects on people who will never see the stories being spread about them. They’re not on social media, don’t have access to the internet, and therefore can’t respond. But they are still harmed:
“The truth is, you have a lot of communities who don’t have access to social media, who don’t have access to technology. The best example is the Indigenous community in Brazil or the Muslim community in Assam in India who are much poorer, who have less access to these technologies.
So you will have this cycle, this bullying cycle essentially, where, even for people who are not online, they're being attacked and targeted online, on social media, by these bad actors. And they can’t report it. They’re not online. They can’t respond to it and spread their own stories. They can’t even have a conversation about it, they’re just sitting there being pummeled and pummeled and pummeled by this horrendous content that’s making people literally go out and look for them in the streets.”
I want to pretend that ditching all social media would protect us from the hate spread on it, but it doesn’t. It’s like pretending that you can be protected from violent rhetoric simply because you don’t speak the language it’s being spoken in. Having a billionaire who thinks every line of violent rhetoric is a good joke or “free speech” in charge of a platform is only going to make it worse.
In late 2016, just after the presidential election, my town was inundated with weeks of online hate and outright death threats mostly aimed at people in Jewish community. (There were plenty of national news stories about it at the time, but Anne Helen Petersen’s at BuzzFeed was the best and most comprehensive.) The same week it started, I had published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about my town, one particular white supremacist, and how community resilience is built, which drew some of that same hate-filled attention my way. It was only a splash, but it was enough.
There were several extremely shitty weeks, and more shitty months after that, and it’s not like the damage has ever disappeared. I’m still proud of how my town responded, how people supported one another and resisted the hate and how the entire place closed down the day of a threatened armed neo-Nazi march that never materialized.
I still had a Twitter account then and kept screenshots of some of what was sent my way, which wasn’t notable for its level of hate, but for the fact that the person writing the posts knew my nickname (which I’d almost never shared online before), my phone number (ditto), and my family’s routines. Which meant they either knew me or knew someone who did. I’ll never forget walking to the elementary school playground day after day, wondering who?
(For the record, I am not Jewish, but a) that shouldn’t ever matter, and b) once you go down this road it’s only a matter of time before you wrap hate around everyone who disagrees with you, no matter their ethnicity or religion.)
This entire episode was part of what got me to write so much about community and trust in my book on walking. What do you do when trust is broken? What do you do when you don’t know whom to trust and still have to live your life, day to day? It’s a big part of why I wove in much of my father’s experiences growing up under Stalin into that book.
I didn’t leave Twitter until at least a few months after all this happened. And though it was a major factor, it wasn’t the only factor: Twitter is the only social media platform I’ve ever felt an addiction to, which was most of the reason—I wasted so much time scrolling and browsing it’s embarrassing to admit; plus I can honestly say I’m still relieved at the thought of never receiving a picture of some guy’s genitals in my DMs again.
Looking at these tweets still makes me feel ill. I kept them because I didn’t want to forget that time. How I couldn’t sleep much for weeks on end, and had trouble eating. How much worse it affected people here who were more relentlessly and violently attacked. How billions of people all over the world live with this kind of fear. How much of human history has been shaped by the violent actions that are the inevitable endpoint of hate and dehumanization.
A few months ago I tried to talk myself into getting over my issues with Twitter. There’s no use pretending that Twitter doesn’t play a major role in writers’ careers. It does, and I have fewer opportunities without it. Elizabeth Spiers wrote a compelling article about this reality, and after reading it I told myself to grow up and get back on the stupid bird app.
So I created a new profile, uploaded a photo, wrote a bio, linked to my website, did all the things. Then I went and looked at two of my Montana friends whom I’d probably follow first, to see what was going on in their Twitter-worlds. And I remembered what being on Twitter was like. Not what would come my way—what I’m like on there. What I’d have to comment on, and how. How I’d get sucked into never-ending politics dialogues because I have a problem with that kind of thing.
I almost threw up, seriously. Life really is too short, I thought. Maybe nobody ever pays me to write another book or essay in my entire life, that is fine as long as I never have to be that person again, the person I am on Twitter.
This post hasn’t gone where I intended it to go. Because it’s not meant to be about me; it’s about ownership, once again. It’s about the fact that the ability of people to become billionaires is a failure of society. It’s about how becoming that wealthy gives you immense power over the global commons. You can buy your 340,000-acre ranch from your fellow billionaire friend and use your wealth and influence to fence in not just the land, but the wildlife, the water, the democratic will of the people who want to keep those things in the public trust, with public access. And you can buy one of the most influential social platforms on the planet and fill it with hate speech and trolls.
One of the chapters of the book I’m working on is about ownership of data, which I maintain is a type of ownership over our selves—including our future selves, especially for children—that few of us really grasp the power of. It’s been strip-mined and commodified for years now, at the expense of society and our own agency in ways we don’t even understand.
Twitter is no different in this respect, but I think Ryan Broderick put what’s truly at stake best in a recent Garbage Day post on what’s really happening as the company’s staff and moderation are gutted:
“The narrative right now is that Musk’s egomania drove him to buy and inevitably ruin Twitter because he hoped to transform it into X, his totalitarian ‘everything app’ WeChat clone he wanted to send us to space with. But there is another, simpler narrative here. A man who grew up in apartheid South Africa, whose family owned a diamond mine, who made his name helping cyberlibertarians bypass banking laws, manipulating the US tax system to build faulty self-driving cars, and shooting rockets into space in the hopes of establishing debt slavery on Mars, bought an app built by activists and Black Americans, and that is relied on by the Global South as a valuable democratic tool, and is used by journalists around the world as a free and open source of information, and tried to turn it into his personal country club. This is just the mundane nightmare of watching a wealthy man wreck his new plaything — an imperfect, but vital communication system for some of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities in the world. This is a colonialist doing what colonialists do.” (Emphasis added.)
I have no particular interest in saving Twitter for Twitter’s sake, but it’s hard to deny its usefulness worldwide. It was instrumental in the Arab Spring protests, and I’ve read that it’s vital for the current women-led revolts going on in Iran.
It is the users who truly build these networks, who give them value. Just like it’s a physical community that gives land its value. Not the person who owns title to it. Yet in a system that rewards capital, it’s always the title holder who collects that value, who commodifies the commons and claims its rewards for themselves. It was true with Montana’s early Copper Kings; and with England’s 15th-century landowning nobility who kicked people off their land to make a better profit off of sheep; and with all the George Washington-type land speculators who made fortunes out of stealing North American land from people who already lived here; and it’s true of the digital technology that we hate, use, appreciate to some extent, and create through our labor.
I loathe all the digital technology. But what I loathe is how it’s been dictated to us. How we’re not allowed to buy devices built without literal slavery and poisonous extraction; how we don’t get to decide how we want to use it, and where, and what role it plays in our societies and individual lives. I don’t loathe what it’s given me: the ability to connect with people in ways I never could have in my own childhood, when we called my father’s family in the Soviet Union once every few years, from a neighbor’s phone at exorbitant rates per minute. I like being able to text with friends wherever they live, and video-call family overseas.
But it’s far too easy to say, “Well, look at all the benefits you get! You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” To which I’d like to remind people of philosopher’s John Gray’s point that, “You can break millions of eggs and still not have a single omelette.”
I’ll end with a quote about technology from my own book on walking, because when I was writing about trust and community and loneliness, I was asking these questions, about the destruction that a car-centric culture has left us with, and whether digital technology is going down the same road:
“‘Progress’ is a messy ramble, less a clear path through the woods than a process of bushwhacking through a jungle full of dead ends and U-turns and countless life-threatening encounters.
Building a completely car-dependent culture has brought us to one of these dead ends. Instead of increasing our freedom of movement, we’ve limited it to where and how we construct roads. Instead of opening the planet up to our human experience, we’ve gridded it out and closed it off. Instead of learning how to make better, stronger communities, we’ve boxed ourselves into suburbs lives that are at the same time disconnected physically and hyper-connected digitally, building out of our lives the wealth of daily interactions that make community-scale social capital possible, while investing in infrastructure that makes us incredibly vulnerable to the vagaries of a planet ruled by nature. . . .
How might technology be carefully and deliberately designed to improve human existence, without wholesale rewriting of it? How do we avoid making the same mistakes with assistive technology that we made with automobiles?”
Social media, and digital technology in general, taps into our deep-seated need to connect with one another. Humans are social creatures, even the strongly introverted among us like me. Our need for connection is real. It should never have been commodified, any more than water or air or land or people should have been.
I’m tired of the wealthy and influential among us breaking all the eggs and telling us we have to accept the few omelettes that might or might not get cooked and that they might or might not eat first. The digital world is a commons, too, and we should all have a say in how it’s created and how it’s governed.
This is already monstrously long, so I’m skipping the Stuff to Read/Listen to/Watch this week except that I recommend everything I linked to in here, most especially Francisco X. Alarcón’s poetry, which you can find more of on Poetry Foundation.
I did enable the Substack Chat option. This is purely because I have no other social media and it’s a way to share things that are more ephemeral, like an Instagram photo except not. You’re not going to miss out on much without it, and so far I’m not liking the experience of trying to read full newsletters or write comments on it. There shouldn’t be any pressure about this. After all, I don’t follow any of you on Twitter! But I am using the chat option casually. It’s nice for me to be able to see everyone else’s photos.
Speaking of photos, let’s end up on an up note. This is from Yellow Bay State Park on Flathead Lake, which I drove down to visit just to get out somewhere different a couple weeks ago. I love this planet.
Brilliant piece! And the photo is nice. I do the crossword every morning to strengthen those neural pathways that make me a sharper person, and then I read your reflection which brings in a whole different element of neural processing. I agree wholeheartedly with you about Twitter, and other forms of social media. And the unfairness and disparities in the world – sad and gross. Back to social media, ￼￼It is addicting, and I’ve been cutting back- as I’ve been cutting back on the caffeine. Too much stimuli, and a lot of it disruptive.￼￼
"It’s like pretending that you can be protected from violent rhetoric simply because you don’t speak the language it’s being spoken in."
Everyone talks about how horrible social media is (and it is, frequently) but the first-order effect is that there are a lotta assholes in this world and social media makes it easy to reach out and fuck with someone.
"Having a billionaire who thinks every line of violent rhetoric is a good joke or “free speech” in charge of a platform is only going to make it worse."
He's just a right-winger, aspiring to rule the world as absolute monarch. (He labelled himself as a Dem when Tesla was in California but that's just marketing.) There are a number of these ultra-wealthy nutjobs (Vladimir Putin is one; Zuckerberg is another) keen to control other people's minds so that they stop saying those nasty (true!) things about thing. (Zuckerberg, in particular, has been clearly aiming at the idea that the Matrix was cool movie, but it would be even cooler if it was real and he was the guy who created and ran the place. Think how much people would suck up to him THEN. Think about how much he could control other people's minds! If only he wasn't a run-of-the-mill upper-class white boy dweeb, with no particular large thoughts about society, just a collection of reactionary impulses and a keen lust for money.)
"but for the fact that the person writing the posts knew my nickname (which I’d almost never shared online before), my phone number (ditto), and my family’s routines. "
The usual suspects collect a lot of data on you so all these folks have to do is to use one of the many databases to access various data. Once they know that, someone can just drive by your house for a day or two and there you are.
"It’s been strip-mined and commodified for years now, at the expense of society and our own agency in ways we don’t even understand."
Yeah, well, the tech/telco corps are total whores, which is hilarious given that they are the R party donor class and they'll mouth all the right words for R-style freedom and liberty they're game. When, say, the Bush administration, asks them to allow them to tap every internet IPX in total contravention of the fourth amendment, the telcos were like, 'Sure, can I get you anything else? Coffee? Sandwich? Foot massage?'
"I loathe all the digital technology. But what I loathe is how it’s been dictated to us. How we’re not allowed to buy devices built without literal slavery and poisonous extraction; how we don’t get to decide how we want to use it, and where, and what role it plays in our societies and individual lives."
They're maximizing economic efficiency, or so I have been told. (Bluetooth is supposed to be an open protocol - it's entirely designed and meant for connecting disparate devices and platforms, so, of course, Apple thinks it's 1988 and their bluetooth on this iPad interoperates with absolutely no other non-Apple devices. This is not considered a manufacturer defect, even though it is exactly a defective implementation, albeit intentional.) There's a lot of shitty stuff about 2010-2020's technology that only exists solely because some idiot is trying to do so monopoly shit to (theoretically) make slightly larger profits even though I am pretty sure this is the tendency that reduces sales over time, not to mention consumer satisfaction.
"This is already monstrously long"
Rock-solid piece, Antonia!
you should right more 'ok, i am cranked off with all this bullshit' stuff, it's good