Quitting Twitter

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[I’m quitting Twitter but I’m launching a newsletter in its place. Subscribe above! I’ll plan to cross-post my emails to this blog when it makes sense, which it does for the one below]

Why we’re here

Twitter’s problems with harassment go way back, but in the past few weeks, it’s made some decisions that have forced me to reconsider my relationship with the platform. First, this cryptic message from Seth Rogen about Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey:

While outsiders may perceive Twitter’s verification system as impartial, it’s not. Twitter only verifies people who have reached a specific notoriety level or who hold specific jobs (e.g. journalist, actor, etc.). Verified users get features that unverified users don’t. While Twitter claims verification isn’t an endorsement, in the past, it has removed verification as a means of punishing bad actors.

The fact that Dorsey did not seem to care about verifying white supremacists, even when one of the most popular users of his platform was chiding him about it, was a red flag to me.

Then, the Info Wars wars.

If you don’t know, Info Wars is a despicable media organization whose main claim to fame these days is that they propagated a conspiracy theory about how the Sandy Hook massacre was staged. This has brought untold misery upon the already-suffering families of this senseless tragedy.

Last Monday, every major tech platform took steps to remove Info Wars content. Every platform, that is, except Twitter. In a series of tweets, Dorsey defended his decisionmaking:

The next day, Dorsey appeared on Hannity to further explain why Alex Jones hadn’t been banned. Dorsey’s justifications were soon revealed to be complete nonsense and hypocrisy.

I don’t know why this was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me, but maybe it solidified the notion for me that Dorsey just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get the extremely basic notion that banning Jones would be far more effective than relying on journalists to rebut his remarks. He doesn’t get that it’s a reasonable position to want your platform to be free of toxicity, and to take steps to make that happen. He doesn’t get that sometimes you need to make a moral choice.

To me, Twitter’s inability to ban Alex Jones was a litmus test. Aja Romano puts it really well in her article at Vox discussing it:

Jones represents what is perhaps the clearest opportunity to draw a moral line that Twitter will ever have. Forget the Nazis for a second; Alex Jones is a man who has seen his followers harass the parents of dead 6-year-olds and continued to egg them on, using the completely fabricated claim that these parents’ grief is just an act. There is nothing redeemable here; there’s no useful idea, no political concept worth debating — there’s only a lie told purely in order to spread harm, confusion, disorder, and pain. Jones is sound and fury, signifying nothing. Twitter’s choice to defend his place on its site, however, signifies everything about what Twitter is choosing to be.

I couldn’t get these words out of my head after I read them: “There is nothing redeemable here; there’s no useful idea, no political concept worth debating.” If Twitter can’t draw the line at Alex Jones, it has no line.

Why quit?

When writer Lindy West quit Twitter, she wrote a piece for The Guardian explaining why. The whole thing is worth reading, but two points stuck out to me. The first is that by using Twitter, we are essentially helping it to generate value and revenue:

Twitter, for the past five years, has been a machine where I put in unpaid work and tension headaches come out. I write jokes there for free. I post political commentary for free. I answer questions for free. I teach feminism 101 for free. Off Twitter, these are all things by which I make my living – in fact, they comprise the totality of my income. But on Twitter, I do them pro bono and, in return, I am micromanaged in real time by strangers; neo-Nazis mine my personal life for vulnerabilities to exploit; and men enjoy unfettered, direct access to my brain so they can inform me, for the thousandth time, that they would gladly rape me if I weren’t so fat.

The second is that we wouldn’t be willing to accept this behavior from any other organization. Why should we do so with Twitter?

I’m pretty sure “ushered in kleptocracy” would be a dealbreaker for any other company that wanted my business. If my gynecologist regularly hosted neo-Nazi rallies in the exam room, I would find someone else to swab my cervix. If I found out my favourite coffee shop was even remotely complicit in the third world war, I would – bare minimum – switch coffee shops; I might give up coffee altogether.

Twitter has added so much to my life. It’s allowed me to have a career. It’s introduced me to tons of amazing people, many of whom have become my collaborators. I used to love the platform and enjoy using it. But until its leaders demonstrate the willingness to make incredibly basic moral choices like banning Alex Jones, you won’t find my work on there.

I realize it’s a privilege to not “need” to use Twitter, so I don’t begrudge anyone whatever decisions they make. Everyone has a different place to draw their own line, and people often do so in different ways with different social platforms. I don’t judge anyone on this matter. Just want to explain my position on it.

And hey, it’s possible Twitter could reverse course tomorrow and I’ll be back on there. But until that happens, you’ll find me on Facebook, on Instagram, on TinyLetter, on YouTube, and here on my blog. Just not on Twitter.

Monetizing your disdain

In The New York Times, Taffy Brodesser-Akner has a great profile of Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s extremely even-handed and as revealing about the writer as the subject. This portion caught my eye.

A gynecologist and obstetrician in San Francisco named Jen Gunter, who also writes a column on reproductive health for The Times, has criticized Goop in about 30 blog posts on her website since 2015. A post she wrote last May — an open letter that she signed on behalf of “Science” — generated more than 800,000 page views. She was angry about all the bad advice she had seen from Goop in the last few years. She was angry that her own patients were worried they’d given themselves breast cancer by wearing underwire bras, thanks to an article by an osteopath who cited a much-debunked book published in 1995. Gunter cited many of Goop’s greatest hits: “Tampons are not vaginal death sticks, vegetables with lectins are not killing us, vaginas don’t need steaming, Epstein Barr virus (E.B.V.) does not cause every thyroid disease and for [expletive] sake no one needs to know their latex farmer; what they need to know is that the only thing between them and H.I.V. or gonorrhea is a few millimeters of latex, so glove that [expletive] up.”

But something strange happened. Each of these pronouncements set off a series of blog posts and articles and tweets that linked directly to the site, driving up traffic. At Harvard, G.P. called these moments “cultural firestorms.” “I can monetize those eyeballs,” she told the students. Goop had learned to do a special kind of dark art: to corral the vitriol of the internet and the ever-present shall we call it cultural ambivalence about G.P. herself and turn them into cash. It’s never clickbait, she told the class. “It’s a cultural firestorm when it’s about a woman’s vagina.” The room was silent. She then cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled, “VAGINA! VAGINA! VAGINA!” as if she were yodeling.

It reminded me of this piece by Matt Singer about why you shouldn’t share bad articles:

Look, I get it. When someone writes something bad it pisses me off too. And my first instinct is to share it with a “Can you believe someone was paid to write this junk?” tweet. In an ideal world, sharing and decrying these pieces would have their intended effect. Alas, we do not live in an ideal world. When we share a piece of stupidity or racism on social media hundreds of times, and people click on it hundreds of thousands of times, we’ve given the writer exactly what they wanted (or, at the very least, have in no way punished them for doing something bad). The old truism about how there’s no such thing as bad publicity? That’s never been truer than in on the internet circa 2018.

Like I said, I’ve been just as guilty of this as anyone. But I’m trying, Ringo; I’m trying real hard to be a shepherd. Instead of amplifying the bad, I’m sharing the good. They’re not always the sexiest articles, and they rarely get shared far enough to make a positive impact on their traffic (some other time we’ll have to talk about how retweets and likes have become psychological currency, and another incentive to share bad articles). But at least I’m not helping spread the crap in the world. Instead of treating these articles like spoiled milk, we should look at them like a fire: The quickest way of stopping one is by depriving it of oxygen.

People derive great pleasure from sharing and denouncing bad articles but, in a very tangible and financial way, the people behind those bad articles benefit from having them shared. Next time you want to get angry at something, just think about not talking about it. Ironically, it’s the best way to send a message.

‘Every Frame a Painting’ comes to an end

Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos, writing about the end of their wildly popular YouTube series Every Frame a Painting:

Everyone who works in filmmaking knows the triangle: Faster, Cheaper, Better. Pick two. A film can be made fast and cheap, but it won’t be good. Or you can make it fast and good, but it won’t be cheap. Or it can be cheap and good, but it won’t happen fast.

Every Frame a Painting was made after we came home from our day jobs and paid our bills. That kept it cheap. We also tried really hard to make it good. Which ultimately meant we had to sacrifice “fast.”The big danger for future video essayists is that large websites have started moving away from the written word and towards video, which is completely unsustainable. Video is just too expensive and time-consuming to make.

The end of an era. Every Frame a Painting was one of the gold standards for video essay channels, being both influential and widely viewed. But there’s something to be said about holding close to one’s principles and going out on top.

This farewell essay brings to light exactly how unsustainable and nonsensical all this media industry talk of “pivoting to video” is. Video production and video editing are costly, time-consuming affairs. User acquisition in today’s saturated environment is intensely challenging. And that’s not even getting to the monetization piece yet! Every Frame a Painting couldn’t figure out a way to make it work that satisfied their creative goals, even with robust Patreon campaign. What hope do people who aren’t insanely talented have?

The other troubling issue this essay highlights is how challenging it is to even make video essays for YouTube these days. Zhou had to reverse engineer the Content ID algorithm, then alter footage (or only show extremely brief clips of it) to avoid getting his work taken down and blocked. As someone who’s had their work taken down due to spurious copyright claims, I know firsthand that publishing video essays on Youtube can be a frustrating experience that privileges the copyright holder in nearly all circumstances.

Basically, it’s hard out there for a video essayist these days.

How do you say sorry online?

Christopher Mele at The New York Times is doing a good job chronicling the foibles of the digital age. This week, he wrote up an insightful piece on how to give someone condolences online. Short answer? Don’t let that be where your sympathies end:

April Masini, who writes about relationships and etiquette for her website Ask April, said in an email that offering sympathy via social media can fall short. Many people post comments primarily to be seen publicly expressing condolences, she said, and comforting the bereaved becomes a secondary goal.

If you do leave a message on a grieving person’s Facebook profile, be sure to follow up with a phone call, or maybe a note or card in the mail, experts said. You want your condolences to be personal and direct, so taking time to treat the grieving party to coffee or to send them a personal note means more than a quick “I’m sorry for your loss” via Facebook message or text.

Also, only offer condolences on social media if the person has posted the death and personally publicized it, said Michelle P. Maidenberg, the president and clinical director of Westchester Group Works, a group therapy center in Harrison, N.Y. The last thing you want is to force your grieving friend into an unwanted public conversation about the death.

Inside SoundCloud’s implosion

Ryan Mac at Buzzfeed has a detailed story on how SoundCloud found itself in its current situation:

Today, SoundCloud appears stuck in no man’s land, according to former executives and employees. Though the company found validation with the major labels and launched a me-too subscription music service, former employees and music industry executives argue it bungled a great opportunity by losing sight of what made it unique: serving as a listening platform for non-label controlled content. Jake Udell, the CEO and founder of TH3RD BRAIN, a management company that represents artists like Gallant and Grace VanderWaal, said that SoundCloud used to be the first place he’d go to post music of his up-and-coming acts.

“Back then I would have to fight the labels to have songs on SoundCloud,” he said. “Now it’s not even part of the conversation.”

My takeaways from this story:

  • If you are a small scrappy startup going up against entrenched players (as SoundCloud was, going up against not only the music labels but also Apple Music and Spotify), your expectations and timeline for success need to be correctly calibrated and your execution needs to be flawless.
  • At a startup as small as SoundCloud, one person in power has the capability to do a tremendous amount of damage to the company and its workforce.
  • An absentee CEO can absolutely destroy morale.

What’s the point of life if the universe will one day end?

In David Lowery’s recent film, A Ghost Story, one of the characters goes on an extended soliloquy about the nature of humanity and how one could easily interpret the whole of human existence as a pointless of exercise. One day, everything as we know it will be gone — even, most likely, the universe. So what’s the point of it all? A24 released a short excerpt of the speech on YouTube above. (You can also watch my Periscope review of the film).

This week, the YouTube channel Kurzgesagt released a new video that tackles this very issue.

From the video:

If the universe ends in heat death, every humiliation you suffer in life will be forgotten. Every mistake will not matter in the end. Every bad thing will be voided. If our life is all we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters. If the universe has no principles, the only principles relevant are the ones we decide on. If the universe has no purpose, then we get to dictate what its purpose is.

Humans will most certainly cease to exist at some point. But before we do, we get to explore ourselves and the world around us. We get to experience feelings. We get to experience food, books, sunrises, and being with each other. The fact that we’re able to think about these things is already kind of incredible.

Obviously, there’s no one answer for this eternal question, but I appreciate them taking a shot at it.

In short: in the grand scheme of the universe, our time on earth is but a blink of an eye. We might as well enjoy it and try to help others enjoy it while we can.

For more ruminations on making the most of life, see Wait But Why’s post on Life in Weeks.

“What if writing, full stop, isn’t a job anymore?”

Bryan Curtis over at The Ringer has some thoughtful reflections on last week’s MTV craziness:

Let’s imagine a pivot to video is genuine rather than just a scheme to give everyone a pink slip. Other than Vice and a few other shops, there’s almost no model for what a good web video job would be. Last week, Vanity Fair unveiled a profile of Serena Williams with beautiful photos from Annie Leibovitz and a story from Buzz Bissinger. But as The Awl’s Silvia Killingsworth wrote, a video that accompanied the article was just a collage of Leibovitz photos and pull quotes from the article. The article’s sentences were labored over; the pictures were composed; the video was an afterthought.

Some of this may just be timing. A decade ago, if a web publication said it was “pivoting to podcasting,” the news would have been greeted like the End Times. Now, getting tapped for a podcast is like earning a journalistic merit badge. In a few cases, writers have realized they could both write and pod. In others, writers realized that if a zippy conversation about the news of the week consumed the time they’d have otherwise spent crafting a memorable piece, well, that’s the price of success. It’s a lot easier to have the zippy conversation.

The culling of online publications will likely continue as viable business models for video sort themselves out. In the meantime, let the good times roll.

The importance of being phished

One of my favorite podcasts is Reply All, a podcast about the internet. They recently produced an episode explaining how easy it is to get phished and how devious modern phishing techniques can be. It’s a fun episode, and teaches us the following things:

  • You don’t need to be stupid to be phished. In this episode, several extremely skeptical professionals are phished successfully. A successful phishing can sometimes be more of a testament to the skill of the phisher than the gullibility of the phishee.
  • If an email looks even slightly weird, triple check all aspects about it.
  • If you find that you need to re-enter your two-factor authentication more times than usual, make sure the URL in your browser is correct.
  • Don’t phish your coworkers, even as an educational experiment. It can only end in heartbreak and recriminations.