The Media is Us

Mine too, Marilyn, mine too. Marilyn is one of the few remaining humans from the early social web that I’ve not yet met in person. I loved the early web, I love that my friend Gregg joined Twitter expressly to tell me to see a giant cow at the side of an North Dakota highway, a cow you can see from miles away, but no matter, it was essential I not miss it, and Twitter was the medium he used to deliver that critical message.

My life is rich with great stories about what Twitter has enabled — an early career trip to New York paid for by Conde Nast Traveler, an interview with an astronaut, so many good friends found. I have the dubious distinction of being one of the first to document an aircraft “incident” (it was not a crash) on Twitter; for that I was rewarded with an afternoon in a conference room where a panel of lawyers questioned me on the experience suggesting it was, in fact, much worse, as though I’d have forgotten a cabin filled with smoke and people screaming and crying. Nope.

I was once threatened — on Twitter — with violence by a dude who didn’t like that I’d questioned the integrity of group project involving packaging and reselling Twitter posts. His reaction was well out of proportion to the issue at hand and Twitter was no help at all. Twitter handles bullying reports through the same automated interface with which it addresses all complaints. It gives you the option to block the user and absolves itself from further responsibility. Your run of the mill troll can just open a new account and pelt you with hate and garbage from there, whee. So that sucks.

But save for that one incident, Twitter has long carried its weight as a social environment (for me), a place where I could still make amazing connections, learn new things, find new editors, and, best of all, make new friends.

A few years ago, the quality of what I saw in my feed began to decline. Bloggers, seduced by cash and swag and free travel, began to clutter the space with hashtagged chats, making Twitter the equivalent of broadcast television, choked with ads for the same thing, over and over. Twitter has a mute button — silencing the tags made many of the people I’d been following disappear from my feeds. This made me sad. My primarily social web had turned into the marketing web. A long time ago, a coworker invited me over to dinner and proceeded to try to sell me on Amway. I was hurt — I liked this woman, and I thought she’d wanted to be better friends, but I was just another potential source of income for her. So goes the marketplace.

More recently, Twitter is crowded with Russian porn-bots. They have the same closeup pictures of boobs and butts, they all use the exact same syntax in their posts.

It’s annoying rather than scary, so that’s a plus over threats of physical violence. But their existence highlights Twitter’s complete apathy about… anything to do with how their tool is used. The bots could be eliminated programmatically; a simple filter would make them away. No dice, I’m left with intermittent reporting and blocking, which I do every now and then, only to find that 24 hours later, a different crop of silicone Svetlanas are clicking like and cluttering my feed with solicitations.

TLDR:  Twitter harbors harassment, intimidation, racism, sexism, and porn. And Twitter isn’t that interested in moderating its environment. A recent Twitter update gave us new icons and round avatars. The tools for reporting abuse and spam appear unchanged.

I’m still on Twitter, though, because the benefits outweigh the downside.

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This morning, July 2, 2017, the Twitter buzz was about an animated gif of a much younger 45th President of the United States wrestling a CNN logo to the ground. It’s as trashy and titillating as the Russian porn-bots junking up my feed. Like the marketing messages that exploit personal connections, it’s a disappointing use of the platform for personal gain — in this case, to feed the President’s insatiable appetite for attention. And it’s dangerous in its implicit call for violence.

Some time back, probably during the election, I blocked the President of the United States on Twitter. I reported him for abusive behavior, and then, I blocked him.

As though he were another marketing hack or porn-bot or troll, I blocked the President of the United States.

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When you consider online tools like Twitter, it’s easy to get wrapped up in arguing about whether they’re a tool, a platform, or both. The President, as a public figure, has a platform by default; his access to tools like Twitter allows for massive distribution via that platform.

The President’s status also acts as a shield against censorship. In May on Wired, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey allowed that the President gets a pass because his commentary is public record (unlike his conversations with former FBI director James Comey).

If someone complained about a Trump tweet, would you conceivably say, “This is unacceptable,” and then block the President of the United States?

We are going to hold all accounts to the same standards. Our policy does [account for] newsworthiness as well, and that was requested by our policy team. So we’re not taking something down that people should be able to report on and actually show that this is what the source said. It’s really important to make sure that we provide that source for the right reporting, and to minimize bias in articles.

Dorsey also admits that they’ve failed to deal with their harassment issues.

We recognized that the very nature of the product was giving unfair advantage to people who wanted to harass. So we needed to change the product experience. We made it a priority last year, but to be very frank and honest, we only shipped one meaningful thing all year. So our progress is not something that we are proud of.

Let’s recap. There’s inadequate infrastructure (or will) at Twitter to shut the haters down, plus, the President is a public figure (like Nazi Richard Spencer, who Twitter saw fit to verify), who get a pass because… news.

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It’s not Twitter’s fault we have an insane President, but their apathy about abuse has contributed to his behavior. (Facebook’s “Fake news isn’t our problem” stance hasn’t helped either. Zuckerberg seems to be coming around, though dude, where have you been?)

But social media has also been an essential tool for resistance. It’s built for communication and dissemination; it’s our job as users to make sure the stuff we share (and report) is worthy of our action.

The democratization of media tools give us all the ability to create and spread news — not just via Twitter. We’ve got Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and hell, I’m still posting to this blog. I don’t know what you’re using, but probably something, even if it’s just to share photos of your summer vacation — and sometimes, even those are inherently political. Maybe you went to Mexico, because fuck the idea of a wall. And maybe you took your Indonesian exchange student, a teenage girl in a hijab, because fuck Islamophobia too.

When the President uses Twitter to spread ideas about violence against the media, the cross-hairs aren’t limited to CNN.

We’re the media too, and the President would body slam us all.

What are you doing with your social media platform?


If you think your Instagram feed makes you “just an influencer, not a reporter” you should listen to this dystopian near-future fiction podcast story.  Part I is on The Truth, part II on Theory of Everything. That’ll teach you to buy followers.

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3 thoughts on “The Media is Us

  1. Holy hell. What a fab piece…we are the media and we need to take back our platforms. I stopped using Twitter several years ago for much the same reason as you. I don’t like the scheduled tweetizements, I don’t like the artificially fomented interest, (as long as you spend money). But Twitter gave me a lot, Mike Sowden and you, and countless others whose writing and spirit I admire and enjoy. I give it a pass, but I won’t be using it soon.

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