Bubbles, Friends, Acolytes

Rob, 6 January 2021

The middle of last year a friend of ours suggested I read some blogs as a way of whiling the time away, finding out interesting stuff, absorbing others' opinions, that kind of good thing.  One of the suggested bloggers was on Twitter so I began by following them there.  It was interesting, interesting things were tweeted, I learned new stuff as predicted, everything was good.

I'm not a huge Twitter user: I lurk, follow not much more than a dozen people, good light reading on the loo.

Then, just before Christmas, a fellow follower said something on this blogger's thread that seemed just plain wrong to me; certainly the comment could not be allowed to stand without a challenge, 'twas such a sweeping statement.  Specifically he said that what pissed him off about fanboys of Elon Musk was that they couldn't see that Musk isn't clever, and that he takes advantage of clever staff by not paying them properly.  So I asked him for information to back this up.  Predictably the exchange didn't last for more than two rounds before it descended into name calling, the guy @'ing the blogger with a Tweet that "this sealion" (referring to me) should learn to use Google.  At that point I realised that he was only out to entertain his mates, not to have a discussion.  So far so Twitter I thought.

It wasn't until a few days ago that I realised I had seen no tweets from the blogger over the Christmas period.  I checked and I had been blocked.  Now that really did surprise me.  In my naivete I didn't realise that it was even possible to block someone from following you on Twitter: replying, maybe re-tweeting, that I can see, since those could be forms of harassment, but blocking someone from even seeing what you have to say?  In what world can that make any sense?

Not long ago I had watched Tom Walker (the actor who is Jonathan Pie) being interviewed for Channel 4 where he pointed out that when he comes across someone whose opinion he disagrees with he follows them on Twitter, that is the way to get out of our bubbled/blinkered world and I can understand his point but how can that work if you can be blocked from even seeing someone's view?  I had thought that Twitter was inherently, innately, a public medium and yet, apparently, it is not.

Annoyed, I sent the blogger a message via a form on their public website (so I knew it would get to them) explaining that they probably crave good communication, see the problem of bubbles, and that I'd really like to continue following them please, in the spirit of a healthy exchange of information: no reply was received.  So this blogger is actively curating their own audience.

Now Facebook has "friends" and the meaning of that is pretty obvious: friends very likely share your opinions, will be an echo chamber, that is to be expected.  Twitter is meant, I thought, to be the antithesis of that, to encourage mass communication, remove the barriers, in the way Tom Walker suggests.   Yet it is not.  Much, much worse: it appears to be that and yet it is manifestly not.  I'd missed the significance of the word "follower": a Twitter follower is a follower in the sense of an acolyte, a member of court, one who conforms to the views of the ruler; if the ruler is not happy you're out.  And if one does not realise this one might be fooled into thinking what is there on the page/thread is a fair view, going unchallenged; yet it is the view of an acolyte of that particular religion with all the bias that implies, subtle as well as down-yer-throat.

And I'm immensely disappointed that someone who blogs, uses the web to express opinions, I would hope to engender discussion, has to curate their audience.  I mean, it must be fun when everyone laughs at your jokes but it is a bending of reality as much for the blogger as for the audience.  On what planet can that make long-term sense?

Maybe everyone knew this already, that Twitter followers must conform and I'm only just finding out.  Of course there may be white knights out there who never block (I'm one!  Not that anyone follows me, and not that they are ever likely to as I very rarely Tweet anything).  But I think it is possible that most people see Twitter as I once did, as a fair and open means of spreading information.  It may, of course, be bollocks information but at least one can see it and check it and discuss it.

Unfortunately, Twitter is as responsible, more responsible in my view, for insidious bubble forming than Facebook; Twitter bubbles are actually more like Twitter black holes, which you don't even know that you're inside and from which no information escapes once you're outside [my physicist friends may suggest that at least real black holes, unlike the Twitter ones, do allow information to escape].  And I can see no fix, aside from encouraging any Twitter user you know never to use the block button unless they are truly being harassed beyond belief.  Others' opinions and the information they are based on matter, it is how we listen, learn and develop.  The shape that Twitter currently takes is killing that, twisting that, and we have no way to stop it.

Happy 2021 everyone :-).

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