"It's Not Cancel Culture — It's A Platform Failure."
Adventures in context collapse.
Before we begin, I’d like to thank all of you for your kind words, sign-ups, and extreme generosity with your hard earned dollars over the last few days. Before launching on Sunday, I oscillated between feeling like I was going to barf and wanting to lift weights, yell, and run through drywall. This is a huge leap for me — professionally, financially, and for my fragile writer ego. But I’m so thankful for you all for signing up and giving Galaxy Brain a chance. I’ll try not to let you down. If you’re new to this newsletter, here’s a bit about the overall mission. Lastly, a reminder: All posts will be free for a few weeks and then I’ll bring down the hammer. And if you haven’t subscribed…well, then you’re in luck, buddy! There’s a link right below!
We Need To Get Rid Of Twitter Trending Topics
On April 6, Elle Hunt was in a pub in New Zealand, where life has basically returned to pre-pandemic normal. She was, by her account, two wines deep, having a light hearted argument with her friends about film genres. Half serious, but committed to the bit, she tweeted this:
A few minutes later, in response to a harmless reply, she tweeted her rationale and closed her phone:
Even if you don’t know the story, you probably have a sense of what happened next. Her lopsided Twitter poll answers quickly indicated she’d expressed A Bad Opinion. The quote retweets started rolling in. The first few seemed like faux outrage at a particularly spicy genre opinion that kept with the spirit of her post — but that eventually shifted, too. People were mad. Hunt logged off and went to bed.
She woke up to angry emails from strangers. Overnight, friends in the U.K. sent concerned messages asking if she was doing alright. She opened Twitter and found her poll had 120,000 votes. Over 6000 people, including filmmakers like Kevin Smith, had angrily quote tweeted her, many demanding that she apologize — to Film Twitter, to prominent directors, to the medium of space itself. The reason? Once the tweet picked up steam, it was elevated into Twitter’s Trending Topics widget in the U.S and U.K.
The whole affair is a perfect example of context collapse, which generally occurs when a surfeit of different audiences occupy the same space, and a piece of information intended for one audience finds its way to another — usually an uncharitable one — which then reads said information in the worst possible faith (You can read about the origins here from scholar danah boyd).
In this case, the collapse was substantially amplified by Twitter’s Trending widget, which took an anodyne opinion by a verified Twitter user and displayed it to millions of random people as if it was some kind of significant pop cultural event. “My imagined audience when I tweeted this was, ‘oh, we’re all at the bar and having this low stakes debate,” she told me recently. “In retrospect, that was totally naive to think anyone would have taken it that way.”
The point of Twitter’s Trending Topics is ostensibly to surface significant news and Twitter commentary and invite others to ‘join the conversation.’ Left unsaid, of course, is that ‘the conversation’ at scale is complete garbage — an incomprehensible number of voices lecturing past each other. It didn’t matter how Hunt had intended the argument — whether it was cheeky fun or part of a high-minded indictment of the sci-fi horror industrial complex — it was amplified by others as ammunition to make whatever convenient point that interested parties wanted to make. As Ryan Broderick, who chronicles the internet in his excellent newsletter, Garbage Day, noted during the incident, “is this really how a website should function?”
“I think Trending Topics definitely made it much worse,” Hunt told me. “The choice to feature me had this effect of holding me up as a public figure in a way that would only encourage abuse. I was thinking about if it would’ve been a different situation if they framed it to reduce the focus on me. [As it was] it sort of validated an engagement with a quite flippant opinion that I held.”
I should pause here to note that this isn’t a dramatic story about unrelenting harassment that ruined a life. But it’s noteworthy precisely because it’s so familiar: a perfect example of our broken social media dynamics, which feel ever-increasingly designed to dehumanize us, polarize us, and make us all miserable.
When I spoke with Hunt recently, she was sanguine about the experience. She doesn’t want people to think she feels persecuted. “It feels wrong to even call what happened to me as harassment,” she said. “And yet when you look at the volume and frequency of how it comes in, it’s hard to talk about it as anything other than harassment. It’s just so many people engaging in bad faith — it just overwhelms you, and you start to see it as a reflection of who you are, and that’s really difficult.”
What Hunt is describing is what it’s like to be Twitter’s main character, a seemingly daily occurrence in which huge chunks of the website and its disparate audiences (right wing trolls, bored journalists with huge followings, academics, sitting politicians) decide to focus on one person’s (usually interestingly problematic) tweet. They usually end up with names that only make sense if you’ve lost critical amounts of brain cells due to internet exposure. Example: “Bean Dad” or “Dog Shampoo Guy.” It ends up creating spats that, when you take them out of context, are both amazing and slightly jarring in their absurdity.
The entire phenomenon of “Twitter’s Main Character” functions as a master class in context collapse. Many Very Online Users approach this daily ritual as something between high school cafeteria gossip time and one of those Rage Rooms where you pay money to break things with a hammer. But what’s really happening is thousands of strong individual online identities colliding against each other. In Hunt’s case, it was horror and sci-fi fans and film buffs who felt it was important to weigh in as a way to maintain their particular identities.
Once the initial buzz died down around her tweet, Hunt told me that a small handful of her interlocutors reached out to her in a way that made it seem like they saw the whole event as, well, a game. “It was this bizarre set of people thanking me for a good fun day on the internet and saying things like, ‘That was fun! Nice to argue about something low stakes for a change.’ I was like, ‘oh, glad you had fun but it was not that nice for me!’”
“You’re repurposed as fodder for content generation in a way that’s just so dehumanizing,” Hunt continued. “I don’t really believe in cancel culture, I think it’s a platform failure.”
I tend to agree with her. The ability to switch contexts with little friction on Twitter is part of what can make the entire experience feel spontaneous and exciting. It’s how you get celebrities interacting with random nerds. Fun! It’s also how a lot of vile harassment happens. Perhaps the most common form though is what happened to Hunt. Perhaps it doesn’t fit everyone’s definition of harassment, but it’s also categorically a deeply unpleasant experience.
Twitter’s decision to prominently display Trending Topics is their attempt to highlight the joy of the former and turn it into a service. Twitter, after all, is a niche place and can be hard to navigate — sometimes the best nuggets come as threaded replies or from total randos. It’s mostly chaos. But Twitter is hellbent on the notion that this chaos can be harnessed in a safe, PG-13 kind of way. But that’s wishful thinking. Instead, it dredges up items meant for one audience and throws them into another. Note that the tweet that ended up really going viral wasn’t even Hunt’s poll but her eight word reply to a person with just 2,000 followers
Twitter’s Trending Topics only seem only to exacerbate the site’s worst tendencies, often by highlighting the day’s (frequently trollish or bigoted) main character and increasing the opportunities for context collapse. And of course, none of this is new. For years, Twitter let Trending Topics devolve into a cesspool of misinformation. Conspiracy theorists and trolls have hijacked hashtags and manipulated trending topics to sow confusion and inject dangerous ideas into mainstream discourse.
Recently, in an attempt to quash the rampant misinformation spreading via trends, the company changed its processes and hired a curation team to write neutral-sounding descriptions like the one that ended up heaping attention on Hunt. But even its current iteration feels like a tacit admission that the company has no idea how broken its platform is. In Hunt’s case, her tweet was trending in multiple spots on the topics board, sometimes the result of only a thousand or so tweets — hardly national news, but still treated that way.
I’m not sure if I’d call this irresponsible behavior from the Twitter curation team, but it certainly feels like the company still doesn’t realize that one of the worst possible experiences on Twitter is actually to win the game and go viral. The company worked to provide tools for users being bombarded by harassment, it hasn’t been able to solve for what happens when users manage to break through and gain access to huge pools of attention.
In this sense, Twitter is a game. Just one that you can’t win. Hunt felt this acutely during her stint as the main character. “One of the options available to me would have been to lock my account to make it stop, which would have been seen as some kind of concession that I couldn’t take the heat,” she told me. “So I decided to post through it, and it looks like I’m somewhat pathetically trying to keep my head above water. I didn’t know what I could do to ride it out with dignity. It’s just a failure of the platform.”
Meanwhile, the outrage mill — and the trending topics widget that feeds it — are out to seek more grist. The cycle doesn’t end. Just like Fox News cherrypicks random local news stories to fit its ideological narratives — often around undocumented immigrants, trans librarian story time, “out of control” social justice organizers — to foment the feeling that this is happening all over. The platforms have barraged us with psuedoevents that we are determined to treat as new. The process makes us miserable. The world, as whole, seems more claustrophobic, more oppressive, more enraged.
Maybe the world really is that way. But if so, don’t we deserve a better way, a better service, a better platform from which to navigate and interpret it?
Let’s Debunk A Thing That’s Not True
Ian Bremmer got in on the Galaxy Brain launch/Substack discourse on Monday (we love to see the enthusiasm, we really do!) and, in the spirit of this newsletter’s name, offered a smoldering take:
Again, I love the enthusiasm as well as the compliment! But in the spirit of transparency I’d regret to inform you that this is wildly, laughably, incredibly (and somewhat heartbreakingly) far from the truth. Reminder: I didn’t take a fancy advance from Substack to come here. I’m building this thing without an existing email list. That means I am not installing any gold plated toilets in my 700 square foot bathroom (yet!). Galaxy Brain will likely be a slow burn, which means that we can grow this thing sustainably. Also, wow, what a great opportunity to become a paid subscriber!
Before we go here are…
Two Videos That Reward Watching To The End
Come for this psychological torment:
…And stay for the incredibly grim Flight Simulator training sesh:
Ok! That’s it for today. One last bit of housekeeping: I’m trying to figure out what works best for these emails and I’d love the feedback. Should they be shorter and more frequent or longer and more spaced out in the week? I’ll play around but if something resonates or rubs you the wrong way, let me know. It’s your inbox after all.