Friday, January 15, 2016

Twitter, The Invisible Razorblade Tornado

I got into a Twitter argument with somebody today because I tweeted a link to their tweet, with some commentary. Not going to link up any more details, because I don't want to have random Twitter fights. But the commentary was mild, acknowledging a minor point of contention which might have been raised by a subset of my followers. It existed purely to fend off these minor points of contention. It might have done that job; I don't know. I do know that the person who posted the original tweet took it as an attack of some kind, and responded furiously with I think four new tweets going into incredible detail about how she didn't owe anybody a list of caveats and exceptions in the context of a 140-character microblogging format. While this assertion was true, it also seemed batshit insane.

Here's the thing.

This person was a black woman, and (as you already know) she was posting opinions on the Internet. I've never been a black woman posting opinions on the Internet myself, but everything I've ever read on the subject, by those who have had that experience, strongly suggests that being a black woman posting opinions on the Internet means you encounter ferocious, hateful criticism with literally every tweet you make. So even though this woman's response seemed batshit insane to me, in the context of how she interacted with my tweets, it was probably a completely reasonable misunderstanding on her end. It was a batshit insane way to interact with me, in my opinion, but I very strongly suspect that it was a completely reasonable way for her to interact with her timeline.

There are two things to think about here. The first is that, when you build social software, you're building proxy objects that people interact with instead of interacting with human beings. The second is that Twitter's failure to fully consider the consequences of this fact have led Twitter to become an automatic gaslighting machine. Step one, you're subjected to ferocious hatred. Step two, you encounter a very mild point of disagreement. Step three, in context, this mild disagreement looks like more ferocious hatred, so you respond, quite reasonably, with fierce defiance. Step four, the person who mildly disagreed is now receiving a wildly disproportionate degree of fierce defiance for no readily apparent reason. So they decide that you're fucking nuts. Step five, they tell you you're fucking nuts.

Boom. You have now been gaslighted by a completely sincere and previously disinterested individual who, up to the time of the unintentional gaslighting, harbored no ill intention towards you whatsoever. And this cycle repeats all the fucking time. In this way, if you're subject to harassment on Twitter, Twitter's terrible lack of insight into its own social affordances automatically converts random disinterested people into a crowd of gaslighters.

So.

If you encounter this kind of seeming paranoia on Twitter, please keep in mind, you may be communicating with a completely reasonable person who is trapped inside an invisible tornado of razorblades (with apologies to Adam Wiggins, who used to have a blog with the same name, and who I'm stealing a phrase from). Obviously, this is a story of how I failed to resist the incentives that drive this terrible automatic gaslighting machine, and became part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. But I hope it can serve as some kind of mea culpa, and some kind of warning or cautionary tale, both for anybody else on Twitter, and anybody else in the business of creating software. The past few years have really demonstrated that failing to think through the social affordances of a platform, and failing to listen to your users when they report unintended side effects, can have absolutely terrible consequences.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Depression Quest

The award-winning game that sparked a bazillion sea lions is, at least in its web incarnation, a beautiful little experiment, a throwback to the mid-90s, before the dot-com hustle began in earnest - the days of alt.adjective.noun.verb.verb.verb, when the web was spare and tiny, yet filled with bizarre experiments blurring the lines between poetry, fanzines, and hypertext. The thing it reminds me most of is Carl Steadman's placing.com, which was a weird sort of requiem for a failed relationship, in the form of an alphabetical catalog.

It also vaguely reminds me of the small interactive fiction scene, which started with text games like Adventure and Zork, and still continues today with fun little toys like Lost Pig (And Place Under Ground), where you play a dim-witted orc who wanders into a dungeon by accident, or the Machiavellian Varicella, where you play a Venetian palace bureaucrat out to seize control of a kingdom.

It's virtually impossible to escape awareness of the weird festival of hatred and threats which accreted around the main developer of Depression Quest, yet it's actually quite easy for the game itself to sail completely under the radar. This is kind of backwards, to say the least. If you're interested in this kind of thing, it's worth it to play the game for a minute.

It's kind of just a Choose Your Own Adventure with some musical accompaniment and some very simple, primitive stats relating to your depression: how severe it is, whether you're taking any medications for it, whether or not you're in therapy, and what effect the therapy is having. The text is kind of enormous.

At first, I did my best to read every word, and make choices in character. The depression got worse, and there's a lovely sincerity to the game, which, unfortunately, meant that the character's in-game hopelessness started seeping into me in real life, as the player. So I switched strategies, skimmed the text, and made my choices not based on how I felt the character would react, but what seemed like the right thing to do. My reasoning was, "fuck it, this is going to be negative, might as well get through it feeling good about how I handled it."

That, of course, might actually be the point of the game. Every time I did it, the depression eased up. Winning the game is actually really easy - do the right thing, even if it seems like it'll be hard or risky for the character.

I wrestled with depression during my teens and early 20s, although I don't know if it ever got as severe as true clinical depression. Maybe it was this memory, maybe it was the writing, maybe it's just the years of acting classes turning me into someone very emotional, but I actually had a hint of tears in my eyes when I got to the end of Depression Quest and won.

Certainly, this game is not for everybody, as a variety of intense overreactions (to say the least) have already very conclusively shown, and on a programming level, all it really consists of is text and links. However, if you like good writing, it's pretty great, in a small and modest way.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Paul Graham Doesn't Write Essays

The noted weenis Paul Graham wrote a pair of blog posts yesterday which have seen celebrated, accurate, and well-deserved rebuttals. But nearly every person who disagreed with Mr. Graham has persisted in indulging the man's pretensions, by referring to his blog posts as essays. Even people who urged Mr. Graham to check his truly towering and gigantic levels of privilege accorded him the privilege of referring to his blog posts as essays.

He does not write essays. And Mr. Graham has enough privilege. You don't need to afford him even more. Stop fucking doing it.

Paul Graham first caught attention with his writing by publishing a book of what were arguably essays. At least, the book had a bunch of chapters, and no predominant theme, so calling it a book of essays was good enough. In this book, he included a chapter called The Age of the Essay, in which he argued that his style of writing would come to define our age (which I sadly must admit might be true) and further that his chapters were essays (which is questionable). He never published another book of essays, but he later began referring to his subsequent inferior, rambling blog posts as essays as well.

I'm willing to concede that the chapters in his book, Hackers and Painters, were indeed essays. It might be true, and I'm happy to call it close enough. But in referring to his blog posts as essays, I first noticed how dishonest Mr. Graham was being when I prepared a dramatic reading of his worst writing ever, the blog post Let The Other 95% Of Great Programmers In. This blog post is absolutely not an essay, by Mr. Graham's own definition.

In The Age of the Essay, Graham argues that schools teach you to only write essays about English literature, rather than just about any topic. (I'm very glad to say that this was certainly not true of my education.) He then continues:
The other big difference between a real essay and the things they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn't take a position and then defend it...

Defending a position may be a necessary evil in a legal dispute, but it's not the best way to get at the truth...

The sort of writing that attempts to persuade may be a valid (or at least inevitable) form, but it's historically inaccurate to call it an essay. An essay is something else...

Essayer is the French verb meaning "to try" and an essai is an attempt. An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.
In Let the Other 95% of Great Programmers In, Mr. Graham takes a position and defends it. There is not the slightest hint of exploring a question or trying to figure anything out. He knew what his conclusion would be, and he made an argument. That blog post was a polemic, not an essay.

Note also that a polemic on a blog is usually called a fucking blog post, not a polemic, because most motherfuckers don't even know what the word polemic means.

The two posts he wrote recently, which pissed so many people off, were not essays either. They were very obvious propaganda pieces.

And when somebody writes a propaganda piece on their blog, you might, in a subtle analysis, refer to it as a propaganda piece, but your default term for it should be fucking "blog post."

BECAUSE THAT'S WHAT IT IS.

This person is a BLOGGER. He asserts an undeserved and arrogant level of privilege when he asks you to speak of the essays on his blog as essays, rather than blog posts. But that's just being rude, not dishonest. When he blogs polemics and propaganda pieces, and asks you to refer to his polemics and propaganda pieces as if they were essays, even when they are not — EVEN BY HIS OWN DEFINITION — then you are just handing away shit-tons of privilege to somebody who already has far more than enough.

STOP DOING IT.