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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Virality! What Is It Good For?

Who could’ve guessed that after three pandemic years’ worth of bad PR, the concept of “virality” would enjoy an unexpected glow-up? Twitter’s precipitous fall from grace has occasioned many eulogies for the platform—but also impassioned speeches from those determined to press on. American University philosopher Jonathan Flowers recently tweeted: “A bunch of twitter alternatives are like ‘we don’t have virality, we’re so much better!’ Yeah, you know who depends on virality? Activists. Social movements. All those things that have shifted the needle where rights and the struggles of others are concerned.” His was an impassioned defense of virality’s power, virally shared by many (naturally). As Flowers memorably says, “Virality keeps people from looking away.” 

There’s much truth in this. Virality was perhaps Twitter’s greatest strength; yet, like all of the platform’s strengths, it was also a weakness.  Virality, at its heart, is global, instantaneous, automated networking. It can connect something you say to millions all over the world who would otherwise never have heard you, without your having to embark on any special effort to reach them. What might cost an advertiser millions of dollars, or require the lofty celebrity that ordinarily accrues to popes, presidents, or celebrities, costs you nothing and requires only that you post with the best of them. If you’re lucky, you’ll go viral. Fame and fortune await! (Terms and conditions apply, more on those later.)

But even if you don’t go wildly viral and start a global hashtag trend, you still avail yourself of that instantaneously summoned network. You can meet people like yourself—handy if you’re, say, part of the otherwise microscopic cluster of transgender communities. Community becomes possible in the first place. And you can have conversations across disciplines and domains of expertise; the networking for scholars is unparalleled, bringing the deliberations of expensive, closed-door conferences out into the light of the world. Twitter remains famous for threads by subject matter experts talking about all sorts of esoterica: Weird facts or strange questions spool out into 50-tweet threads that give you a snapshot of some capstone university seminar. For free. Virality does all of this.

Twitter at its best has always been profoundly democratic. Anyone can go viral. There’s no distance between you and Barack Obama on the platform. If your words are good, funny, moving, or otherwise compelling, you too can become a viral celebrity and raise awareness about any issue you so choose. The benefits of this have been clear, from Twitter’s early role in Iranian uprisings, to the Arab Spring more widely, to raising the profile of activist groups like Black Lives Matter, to Black Twitter refusing to let society look away from Black people murdered, injured, or maimed by police, to Black Twitter also exposing chan ops to the world, to helping Ukraine maintain a strong upper hand in their information war against Russia.

It can also kill people. And there is no easy way to have the former without the latter.

Yes, it gave us a way to talk back to the J. K. Rowlings of the world, where no castle walls were high enough to hide a mass of ordinary people calling out their prejudice. It also gave those same activists a weapon to wield ruthlessly against each other, and we did that at every opportunity. Arguably more often.

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Twitter’s virality is unique, and therefore unique in its power, but it is far from a straightforward phenomenon. Any attempt to cast it as an unalloyed good, sullied only by the occasional rounding error, deliberately ignores the grim reasons Twitter came to be known as the Hellsite.

Virality can be understood another way: as a terrible form of celebrity, democratized to the point of desolation. Celebrity, with all its vicissitudes of glorification, entitlement, invasion of privacy, and parasocial relationships, used to be reserved for a select few; even today the word “celebrity” makes one think more of, say, Jennifer Lawrence. Now any of us can achieve it. We, too, can get hounded by paparazzi into a tunnel where we crash and burn. We just aren’t guaranteed the money that comes along with it. Even then, very few are able to parley their viral fame into serious cash: Think of how starring in a meme makes you a kind of communal property, or how rarely Black and other nonwhite influencers can convert the value they generate for social media giants into a living for themselves.

But it’s not just the lack of money. You don’t have paid PR professionals to manage your social media presence, paid assistants to screen your mail or your mentions, nor bodyguards to protect you when it all goes terribly wrong. All you get is the fame without the resources, which means that suddenly hordes of strangers care about what you do and have opinions about it. And when you become a Main Character, things can turn nasty. 

It’s rather fitting that Twitter’s epitaph might be the “chili neighbour” controversy (though the platform’s senium has been littered with similarly embarrassing episodes). One Twitter user, noticing that a group of young students who’d just moved in next to her had ordered takeout every night of the week, made a pot of chili for them. While there was ample support for her, outrage quickly took over from activists who accused her of “ableism,” “violating consent,” having a “white saviour complex,” and a host of other sins. Some of those critics delighted in a post threatening to cook and eat her pet pig. She deleted her account. 

But that wasn’t quite the end of it, because The Washington Post’s cooking section needed #content, and it asked two experts to comment extensively on the etiquette of gifting food to one’s neighbours. I can only imagine how that woman must feel, knowing that virality led her small act of kindness to be psychoanalyzed and picked over in the pages of one of the nation’s largest newspapers. As of this writing there are 1,455 comments on the article.

When I think of Isabel Fall checking herself into a psychiatric ward in a desperate bid to stay alive, after thousands of lefty Twitter users convinced themselves she was a Nazi troll, I ask myself if Twitter was really worth it. For all the benefits of its virality, the fates of people like Fall was always the price. And there are many more whose names you don’t know; I know a few, but I would never draw unwanted attention to them in these pages because it would only lead to renewed abuse. Twitter allowed personal disputes to become hyper-politicized mob actions that have literally pushed people to the edge of suicide. Some were lost to it.

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The panoptic awareness created by virality is an Eye of Sauron, a lidless and unceasing glare that will follow you to the ends of the earth. It’s potentially a liberating force, if it can be trained on the genuinely powerful for long enough. But far more often than not, the people Twitter’s user base “cannot look away” from are powerless and easily obliterated for the sin of a small but memeable faux pas. Sometimes—oftentimes—they did nothing wrong at all. Virality is all about being in the right place in the right time. Or the wrong one.

The insinuation that the only people who could ever find Twitter toxic are white millionaires who were butthurt over getting clowned on by Black Twitter or dril or some Twitch streamer “ratio’ing” them is not just a lie but a staggeringly offensive one. The people who suffered the most from Twitter’s toxic culture were often the very queer people, or disabled people, or people of color, or the poor who Twitter’s offer of free and easy celebrity was supposed to benefit. A few did—I’m actually one of them. Many more did not. And yet again, they are being erased and forgotten in the latest ideological crusade to write soaring hagiography about how Twitter changed the world for the better.

Virality, remember, is celebrity. It brings fame to the poster, for good and for ill. And like a celebrity, you can raise awareness and funds for your pet cause with all that attention. But awareness is not revolution. These are fundamentally individualist phenomena, personality-driven rather than truly political. Twitter fame can fire the starter pistol of a movement, but its virality provides no means of figuring out what comes next. It’s why the protests it helped to organize often faltered. And while I can point to the good the platform has done in connecting people, I struggle to think of one major social change it gave us (rather than changes for which it was merely an audience or a bit player). 

Twitter was a cultural nuclear reactor, blasting out terawatts of amazing, powerful creativity: Black Twitter is also a cultural powerhouse, and it needs Twitter’s affordances to do what it does. There is no dril without Twitter. And culture matters. In our quest to change the world, we need more than bread, we need roses too. And perhaps corncobs. But if we’re going to analyse the platform’s impact on society—which is vital for understanding what may come next—then we need to do more than let Twitter’s most fun aspects blinker us to the immensity of its harm. Loss memes cannot hide its vast population of loss.

What Elon Musk is doing is essentially taking the safeties off; undoing Twitter’s many jury-rigged efforts to try and have good virality without bad virality. But virality was always one thing: an awful form of omnidirectional celebrity that rapidly dehumanized its beneficiary. Squeezing blood from that stone was always a matter of good luck. Most of the rest of the time? Going viral just meant getting a giant target painted on your back. As Musk releases some of the platform’s most notorious harassers back onto the platform, we’re likely to get a ruthless reminder of that fact

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By obliterating Twitter’s attempts at resolving the irreconcilable antinomy between good and bad virality, Musk has only ensured that the Chinese government can engage in viral spam to defeat viral attempts at amplifying domestic protests of CCP’s zero-Covid biosecurity regime. This sort of thing was always a problem. Now there’ll just be more of it. Meanwhile, Musk’s promise to have AI moderate Twitter and shadow-ban abusive comments will prove to be the Hyperloop of social media, a massively overhyped flash-bang of a scam blinding us to efforts to improve existing technologies.

But in Twitter’s case, those existing technologies—the laborious and thankless work of content moderation, with its myriad underdeveloped tools—could only ever provide some small speed-brake on the very worst of the platform’s depredations. Musk’s actions will merely allow Twitter’s affordances to be used to their fullest, ugliest extent. We’ll return to what we never left.

Virality draws your attention to a fixed point. It does not promote true discourse, none of the deliberation of a democratic process that might give us a constructive way forward. The thing that gets called “The Discourse” on Twitter is really just a series of whirlpools spiraling down onto targets of ill repute; an exercise that is exhausting, tedious and, above all, eternal. After all, even those glorious networked academic discussions I mentioned earlier have turned septic because Twitter is as Twitter does. So much of the good work that gets done on Twitter is highly self-referential, often merely cleaning up the worst of Twitter itself; it’s work that wouldn’t need to be done if Twitter itself didn’t exist. Much of the rest only benefits individuals in an especially capricious lottery. One dissident is freed from jail, another shoots herself.

This happens because Twitter can only, in the end, dispense justice on an individual basis. Occasionally this takes a benevolent form. Money for a GoFundMe, a Nazi loses their job, a jailed democracy activist becomes a hashtag, a victim of police brutality isn’t forgotten. But that logic cuts sharply the other way too: vast structural problems are reduced to individual agency, and the only way to fix them is by policing individual sins. Thus the grotesque chaos of Twitter users acting as if one person’s good day is a personal attack against them. Or threatening to kill someone’s pet over chili. Or hounding them into an early grave because you didn’t vibe with their sci-fi story. This is how virality demobilises movements, even as it appears to summon them up.

There is a mistaken sense that the “distanceless public of” Twitter enabled us to speak back to our oppressors, to those in power, and thereby change the world. This belief has propped up our sense of Twitter’s vitality to our lives and our work. But it’s worth asking what the powerful actually did with their awareness of our rage: They reflected it back to us, cast themselves as victims, and started moral panics about how the Great Unwashed were being mean to them on Twitter.

 Meanwhile, so many innocent people that this virality was meant to empower were lost to us because we were all just too damn online. Because virality found them in the worst possible way, at the worst possible moment. They are not rounding errors in our quest to rapidly transmit our sickest memes about the world’s oppressors.

We paid a high price for the meagre good Twitter brought into our lives. That good was indispensable at times, but we are no closer to figuring out how to avoid the evil it is so inextricably linked with. Are we condemned to keep feeding virality’s engine with acceptably nameless sacrifices? If recent discourse is any indication, I fear the worst.

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