01 July 2021

Ant bites

In two days, two insightful pieces of writing have dropped that feel like bookends to each other. Both deal with the effects of social media – or, to be more specific, Twitter – on individuals who get on the wrong end of anger.

First is a retrospective and analysis by Emily VanDerWerff of how Twitter controversy about a single science fiction short story effectively crushed the writer’s desire to ever write again. And that was probably the smallest effect the controversy had on author Isabel Fall.

Second is a description of how social media dynamics are still not grasped by journalism as a field. Charlie Warzel provides brings some useful terms that I hadn’t seen before, like “context collapse” to the discussion.

Both remind us that human beings are used to dealing with small social networks. We aren’t ready for the level of attention that you can get if you become the center of a viral online discussion. VanDerWerff writes:

But in any internet maelstrom that gets held up as a microcosm of the Way We Live Today, one simple factor often gets washed away: These things happened to someone. And the asymmetrical nature of the harm done to that person is hard to grasp until you’ve been that person. A single critical tweet about the matter was not experienced by Isabel Fall as just one tweet. She experienced it as part of a tsunami that nearly took her life.

Warzel says:

Many leaders at big news organizations don’t think in terms of “attack vectors” or amplifier accounts, they think in terms of editorial bias and newsworthiness. They don’t fully understand the networked nature of fandoms and communities or the way that context collapse causes legitimate reporting to be willfully misconstrued and used against staffers. They might grasp, but don’t fully understand, how seemingly mundane mentions on a cable news show like Tucker Carlson’s can then lead to intense, targeted harassment on completely separate platforms.

The “Ant bites” of the title of this post?

When you tweet something, it can feel like you have the power of an ant. And a single ant is usually inconsequential. “Squished like an ant.”

But in 1998, Joe Straczynski wrote a warning (in the usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated).

(E)ven a whole human being can be eaten by ants.

It’s easy to make the mistake of tweeting at or about someone and think you’re just making conversation. Sure, if you were in a room with a person and knew them, it’d probably be fine. But you forget that you probably see only the tiniest sliver of that person’s experience. Your tiny little comment might be part of a much bigger pattern for the recipient. A single ant bit. But the person on the other end might be getting eaten alive by ants.

I am thinking back to a lot of online controversies in science around, say, a decade ago. I think we probably underestimated how rough those could be on researchers. Nobody had a “social media IQ” then. The good news was that the online communities were smaller then, so the anthill might not have delivered quite as many bites as it could now.

External links

How Twitter can ruin a life

What newsrooms still don’t understand about the internet


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