Saturday, March 17, 2018

the tipover point in the online environment

It's another week where I'm not very happy with Twitter. Dear old Twitter, where I post thoughtful things about birds and plants, and sometimes comics, and read a similarly sweethearted scatter from my friends and others. Or where I punchily network through my prosocial professional spaces, linking up our local players, passing on opportunities, maintaining that network. And while I'd always been aware of the boobs and the bots and the bullying that wasn't everything, or even most things, and non-engagement with that whole messed-up scene wasn't hard.

But this year, for the first time, when I talk to teenage kids about Twitter they get the same queasy evasive look on their faces that you get when you ask them about drugs, drinking or sex. Too much of it is a risky environment now. They know about it; but it's not for stuff you'd discuss with adults any more. The natural adolesecent urge is always to run and look and the bad stuff. Now there's just so much of that, they're never going to get to the good stuff any more.

If you want to see how a teen sees Twitter, run a few searches. Use a few likely search terms. If you hit a lively-looking hashtag, give that a click... and you'll see the decay that Downtown Twitter has tipped over into. Ts&Cs are flouted into non-existence. Silk Road, Pornhub and their unmentionable Darkweb siblings have colonised the dialogue; and wave up on wave of bot-generated advertising accounts crawl over everything, like automated obscene graffiti.

I'm normally a solid reporter. I've reliably reported every single account in breach that has interacted . But this was just too much. It was like that moment when the policeman wanders into the drug den in season 3 of the new Amazon series, and it's suddenly CGI vampires as far as the eye can see. You've hit the threshold shift; the tipover point; the place where the gangsters think they're running the show because they've managed to leave their shit everywhere.

I reported one account, then considered my position.

One of the great pleasures of having lived through so many decades is that you fail to really recognise the low roar of panic, and instead just carry on as normal. So with one hand I called the appropriate helpline, and with the other opened another tab to check up on Instagram. The helpline confirmed a few things; Instagram was better in some ways, worse in others - but just as comprehensively colonised.  

There's a thing that's done to public houses - pubs and bars, to you and me - by dealers and chancers and chaotic drinkers. They turn up. They carry on. They refuse to move on. They tell you that you rely on them, and that they're your best customers and that if they weren't there, no-one would be there. They threaten and wheedle and cajole and bully the staff and bring in their friends, and bother your other customers until they join in or leave. It's a make or break moment for the landlord. Will you bar, ban, confront, refuse, yell, shout, dig your heels in, persist and if necessary get people arrested? Or will you fold, fail and start the long walk to demolition in favour a Tesco Metro?

On the way to Tescos, a lot more happpens. The most usual thing is your pub going bankrupt under the should-be-obvious reveal that in your local area, only a tiny percentage of people actually want an environment like this (and even they have mixed feelings about it); and also that these are not the people with reliable disposable income that they'll come in and spend, reliably. They're people who will hide drugs in your toilets, run away from bills and throw up on your bar.  Then there's the trouble you might have, with the police either coming down on you hard or feeling they'll get better results by letting nature take its course and mopping up the pieces later. Orders and notices, damage and trouble; and you can be barred, too, from running a bar. Or maybe things just go quiet, and people stop coming by; the death of unpopularity, of silence.

MySpace Tom still sends me the occassional plaintive email, a salutory message about how the mighty may fall. Too big to fail they were; but they were too slow to put their house in order, and now digital tumbleweeds drift across their digital halls. I wonder how Twitter will respond now they're in that same crossroads? MySpace's executives fronted and blustered but in the end they cut large chunks of their functionality rather than face massive multiple prosecutions and accordingly  were both saved and doomed.

Even more I wonder about Instagram. When their owners, Facebook, were facing a similar issue, they took the route of admitting, addressing and fixing (usual caveats apply) the issue. Why isn't the same thing happening with Instagram?