Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Sit With Me if Ugandan Twitter is Driving You Insane

I joined Twitter in 2009 but never really used it until June last year. Last year, I took a course in engaging media audiences. It convinced me that Twitter is where it’s at. Last year, I also deleted my old Facebook account, to get rid of the many strangers I had somehow friended there Many turned out to be misogynistic trolls. Me, I thought they were my fans. (Stop sniggering. I legit have fans. Or at least, I once did.) So, my reasons for throwing myself into Twitter were two fold: safe (at arms distance) access to stranger’s thoughts that I had closed off on Facebook and also to test run its audience engagement powers.  However, the past 18 months of Twitter have turned me into the wierdo who wakes up in the middle of the night, talking to myself in confusion. What on earth?

Yes, the audience is there but I doubt it’s engage-able. Tweeps, in my experience, are already too engaged with themselves to do the same with something outside of their bubbles. Sure, if a news story serves their pre-existing beliefs, they will share it and it will leave a long life as the unread but indisputable evidence for their arguments. But are you likely to introduce new information there and see it take root? Unlikely. More likely, you will get abused for attempting to pass on unfamiliar information. Since I don’t dream of a news business that caters solely to pre-existing beliefs, I really wonder if Ugandan Twitter is worth investing much journalistic effort into. 

This repulsion to new information really surprises me on Twitter. I knew about filter bubbles but it was easier to visualise them as a Facebook thing. It’s easier to create a personal walled garden on Facebook. After all, like me, you could just unfriend people who annoy you and it’s hard for the opinion of your non-friends to cross into your line of sight. Conversely, on Twitter, every opinion seems to be within your earshot. Tweets will be thrust at you just because someone you follow liked them. On Twitter, you can’t quite avoid access to people’s varied opinions, experiences, etc. However, contrary to what communication theory tells us (access to information motivates engagement), seeing these varied opinions actually just motivates a particularly intense dig-in reaction on Twitter. 

I am often blown away by the extent to which tweeps go, to beat down new information brought to their attention. For instance: last weekend, a group of accounts mobbed to accuse a woman of rape, as punishment her for putting out information that said a popular twitter users beat his intimate partner. A whole debate on whether publishing this man’s conduct on Twitter was the right thing to do, had raged for days, in case you’re thinking, “but what’s wrong with reactions?” None of the accounts in the mob were related to the wife battering incident in question. But the messengers had to be punished. As it happens, one of them is a LGBTI activist. It’s always a fine day to ride the homophobic train in Uganda. 

Another common variation of this is the vitriol directed at vocal opinion makers like Andrew Mwenda. I am not an Andrew Mwenda fan myself but I find reactions to him just staggering. It never seems enough to disagree with him and perhaps dramatically scroll past his tweet with the contempt one deems it worthy. It also doesn’t seem enough to state one’s disagreement once or twice. Nope. It nearly always comes down to a fight to the death. I get the sense that some people actually wake up each morning and compulsively search out his tweets so that they can vehemently disagree with them.

The other thing that adds to my confusion is the entitlement to being heard. When the mob that accused the woman of sexual abuse first started, a good chunk of the tweets were whining, “why aren’t they responding to us?” When being attacked on Twitter, you owe it to the community to stand still and take it. Keyword: TAKE IT. She didn’t. She is suing the users she feels aggrieved by. Cue, lamentations about double standards. Apparently, being vocal herself (regardless of what evidence standard she applies to the things she chooses to be vocal about), she must TAKE IT. There’s a minor problem herein, for the regular Twitter user. You have the power to publish but a very casual knowledge of the risks in this power. Every journalist and campaigner knows: first you gather the evidence, then you speak out. Put the cart before the horse and you’ll be sued for all you’re worth. That’s kinda the game, I’m sorry. Welcome to publishing. Enjoy your stay. 

Back to my confusion though. I don’t quite know how to feel about any of this. Where does any of this behaviour fit in the whole market place of ideas thing? It sure is as loud and as chaotic as any market place but is this how ideas grow really? I am generally absolutist about rights (including free expression), but it also seems too easy to be cruel without consequence on Twitter. Being a journalist, I am fascinated by the multiplicity of ideas & view points but it also seems like such a dump of my time to constantly hear from people who are so married to their world view they actually invest that heavily in resisting new information. Especially when said world views aren’t particularly novel. Like apologising for patriarchy, peddling conspiracy theories, fault finding that’s not at all motivated about solutions. 

Yet, I also don’t want Twitter to go back to what it was in those old days when I rarely used it. The few times I ever logged in, it seemed like the most masturbatory exercise ever done in public. A few people, overly convinced of their coolness and smarts, out there fav-ing each other’s inanity. I struggle with what UOT is today, but I really could not stand its earlier personna. It reminded me of the cool kids’ table in American movie high schools. Except, this cool kids’ table was only cool because it had a banner saying, “cool” right above it and the kids periodically reminded you that they were cool. I most certainly don’t miss that periodic we-are-better-than-people-on-Facebook reminder. Was it even periodic because every three months when I logged in, it just so happened that someone was tweeting about that. Y’all were as annoying as members of Interact Club in secondary school. Not a good look on adults. If those are the only options, I guess, on the whole, I would rather watch today’s train-wreck. At least, it’s animated. 

Oh, wait? Who is sitting with me, now? Nobody? It's fine. #IHateYouBack #IWillGoSelfLove #YouAreStillNotCoolerThanFacebook #YourKaAppCompanyIsNotMakingProfit #ItsDaysAreNumbered