Our Shitposts Only Feed the Beast

We’re drowning each other out with shitposts, and I’m starting to suspect Twitter encourages it.

I literally have no idea what’s going on in my friends’ lives anymore because there are so many posts to wade through. Twitter gave up on the firehose approach of showing us everything, and now it tries to curate for us, but its algorithms have narrowed my age down to somewhere between thirteen and fifty-four, and it thinks I’m interested in—not kidding—dads.

To get back my firehose, I use Tweetbot. I just took a quick estimate of my extensive mute list (which I personally curate), and it weighs in at over eight hundred mutes at this point. The vast proliferation of image posts, a workaround for the strict character limit Twitter imposes, has made these mutes almost worthless, so I’ve had to mute entire people. Occasionally Tweetbot freezes when I mute a person who’s particularly prolific.

What am I muting?

  • Laborious, overwrought, played out jokes. (But usually these are spread in images, so I have to mute people. Sometimes they are blessedly hashtags.)
  • Conferences I’m not attending due to health reasons. (But often the conference has no official hashtag, and—in the case of Google I/O this year—I muted something like five hashtags, three people, and Google itself.)
  • People who repeatedly retraumatize me by putting violence, threats, horrific news and images, extensive and voluminous exegeses of injustice and hate, and soul-rending reminders of hatred (much of which is aimed at me) each and every day.
    • There is little I can do but mute these people entirely. Though they often need dozens or hundreds of tweets to spread their message, and though Twitter is itself a centralized and proprietary platform, they do not use any long-form, self-owned medium to promulgate their message. Why?
    • This is an extremely delicate and controversial point, I know. The anger and sheer revulsion at our world right now come in involuntary, peristaltic waves sometimes. And it’s hard to know who’s reaching whom with what message. Twitter itself bears a lot of blame for giving no one the tools for finer filtering of content. Rarely does this stuff come in hashtagged formats that I can selectively mute. There’s no way to exclude a single tweet or a thread for exclusion.
  • One-off news stories or other events.
    • In 2016, each celebrity death garnered a mute. I share in the psychic pain each caused, but each person’s reaction flared it anew, and it’s not that each person had one reaction, but some repeatedly brought it up for days.
    • In 2017, each news story echoes for hours over dozens or hundreds of tweets, despite every mute on the subject matter I can put up. Much of it is speculations or jokes.
    • Movie releases, sports events, galas and parties, press events, and a million other things I am literally not healthy enough to properly participate in, enjoy, or motivate myself to find interest in.
  • Downright awful, hateful stuff that my friends ought to know better than to share but just don’t.
    • “Drumpf” jokes, fat jokes, or intelligence jokes about Trump. Of all the fertile material (his malice, his incompetence, his apathy) to dredge up, why choose to band with the people whom we should be resisting? Why pile on his typos, ridicule his body, mock his lack of social grace, point out his unsophisticated food choices, or ride his faux pas? When you make fun of him for something, I assume you have forgotten people like myself who are suffering under his administration. Never forget what he is and what he has done.
    • Transphobic shit and people who are on my shit list for it: Erika Moen, Margaret Cho, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Tyra Banks, etc.
  • Shit I just can’t handle (e.g., horrific prison conditions), or other specific situations and people: “triggers”. Nothing anyone can do about this. I mute it the best I can.

I recognize that this problem can be read as mine rather than Twitter’s. My thought is, fewer tweets altogether comes out to higher value for each tweet. So I try to restrain myself a bit, though I’m not always successful.

But here’s the whole damnable hitch: the more restraint I show, the more likely whatever fewer tweets I do emit get lost in the noise. Or, alternatively: the more I value a tweet, the fewer people who will probably see it. And it’s cyclical. Someone who only tweets when it really counts for them might get fewer followers in the first place and will be more likely to have their tweet drown in the ocean.

I recently wrote close to seven thousand words about my astrophotography hobby. Then I shared it in a tweet since a blog post is a rather dormant thing on its own. I’ve been sharing about astrophotography for a little while, so I usually share on Twitter. It did get a decent amount of engagement, but I discovered something strange happening afterwards. I noticed after a while there were still swaths of friends who had never seen any of my tweets about the subject at all.

Haven’t they seen any of my tweets over the last year about it? Any of the photos? Any of the posts I’d written on this site and then shared? No. None of that, they would say. They didn’t even know I had a website.

If this had happened just once or twice, I might’ve dismissed it. But this has happened repeatedly. These tweets just get lost somehow. If it’s not a marathon thread, or tweeted at the precise right moment, or retweeted by the right person, or some other magical thing I haven’t found, then it gets mislaid, I guess. I’m not sure what’s going on.

Or, maybe I do. Twitter turned off their firehose last year. Facebook did years ago. This game went pay-to-play. Either you’re already a person who drives a lot of engagement, who gets visibility, or you pay for the same.

Except, it would be super clumsy to literally have people pay to get their tweets seen. That’s just an ad, and it’s going to look like an ad, and nobody wants to click an ad, right?

But, like, right now, some people are living as ads. They drive particular kinds of traffic, specific kinds of engagement. They don’t look like ads. They target niches with surgical precision. They do this by churning out bulks of, more or less, “pulp” tweets. Each drives more engagement and synergistically works with the others.

It doesn’t particularly matter what they post. Could be they shitpost a very specific thing that a very specific set of weird Twitter just really likes. Maybe @dril is an ad. Maybe you’ve seen more of @dril retweets than mine.

And once there’s a massive, captive audience, there’s potential for…something. Analyzing those people’s interests or behaviors? Subtly linking a video that happens to have an ad? “Yvan Eht Nioj”? I don’t know.

If this whole profit motive part of my post seems vague, it’s because I’m speculating on the mechanism. I’ve veered off into a conspiracy theory. I have friends who assure me I’m wrong, that I’m attributing to malice what is really staggering incompetence. Nevertheless, it’s likely Twitter will soon learn to capitalize upon making some people more visible than others. This is a thing Facebook has already done.

And indeed, this fact is beside my actual point. More to that point, our intemperate shitposting has abetted this imbalance of visibility and enables the profit potential. It justifies the algorithmic curation, and the rest—pay-for-views, filter bubbles, propaganda, outright abuse—follows from there.

I see no easy way to turn it back. It is what it is.