Posts Tagged 'twitter'

Faulty ventriloquism.

I hadn’t heard from Y. in over a month, and when he finally texted I was at the computer with headphones on. The next morning I noticed his texts. The last one said, “Well, I’m off to bed. Hope you’re not dead in a ditch or strung out on drugs.”

I texted back that I was fine and I hoped he wasn’t dead or strung out on drugs. He replied that he was alive, but as for “drugs”, that was a question of definitions.

Y. has tried every mind-altering substance known to chemistry, but after some scary experiments with fentanyl last year he had, as far as I was aware, limited himself to a few daily puffs of marijuana. Therefore I found his comment mildly ominous, but I declined to follow it up via text. I invited him for breakfast the following day.

He said that I’d have to come pick him up at a campground on the outskirts of town.

After a kung fu showdown with his landlord, Y. explained, he’d been obliged to abandon his ground-floor suite on short notice. Knowing about his money troubles, his past run-ins with his landlord, and his habitual difficulty suffering those he deemed to be fools – and discounting the hyperbole about the kung fu – I found this development all too unsurprising.

Still, his jaunty tone made me wary. “Can’t tell if you’re joking,” I texted, “but I’ll come get you wherever you are.”

He replied with the name of the campground and said to meet him “at the usual spot”.

The usual spot? I assumed he was under the mistaken impression I’d visited him at the campground last spring, the last time he’d wound up living in a tent. In any case we could figure it out when I arrived. I said I’d be there at 10.

I slept badly, worrying that I would have to put Y. up in my spare room again, as I did for six weeks last year. The next morning I checked my lease agreement to see what it said about long-term visitors, then texted that I was on my way.

The campground was a half-hour drive across the river to Surrey, an area I barely know. When I found it I pulled up next to the office and texted that I was there.

Five minutes. Ten minutes. It was a warm day; I got out of the car, removed my jacket, strolled in circles. I pictured Y. sprawled on his foam mattress, too zonked to tie his shoes, and wondered whether I’d have to cruise around looking for his tent. I realized my phone was ringing.

“Hey,” he said. “Where are you?”

“I’m by the office. Where are you?”

“In the back alley.”

“What back alley?”

“Behind my house.”

It took me a moment to assimilate this. Then I exploded. “Oh, very funny, jackass. What a goddamned hilarious prank.”

“Did you read all my texts?”

“Yes, I read all your goddamned texts.”

“I thought you could tell I was joking.”

It didn’t take me long to recover my temper. First off, I was relieved that Y. was okay, and that he wouldn’t be pitching his sleeping bag in my spare room.

If anything, I realized, the joke was on him: his real life was so chaotic that his leg-pulling had seemed entirely plausible to me. As I drove back to the city to pick him up, I wondered how much further he could have taken the gag. Would I have met him at a hobo encampment beside the railyard? Probably. In a syringe-strewn alley in the Downtown Eastside? Yup.

Here’s the thing. Y. and I have known each other since sixth grade – that’s 30 years. We’re the same age, same race, same social class, grew up in the same neighbourhood, and became friends in the first place because we share a similar sense of humour.

Despite all that, I still can’t reliably tell, reading his text messages, when he’s cracking a joke.


Midway through Kevin Williamson’s story in the Wall Street Journal about the Twitter mob that harried him out of his very brief gig at The Atlantic, he discusses an earlier incident of social media misrepresentation:

In 2014, I got a call from a friend who was disturbed by my public support for Donald Sterling, the owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, who had gotten himself into trouble for some racist remarks. I had, at that time, never heard of Mr. Sterling, but there was a quote from me right there on Twitter: “‘Looks like the antiracist gestapo are already lacing up their jackboots for Donald Sterling,’ National Review’s Kevin Williamson commented.”

I mention that one mainly because I know the source of it: It was invented by Matt Bruenig, a left-wing blogger … That quote was not a distortion; it was not “taken out of context” or anything of the sort. It was a pure fabrication. (Mr. Bruenig says that the quote, produced in its entirety above, was intended as “satire.”)

You can sort of see how this would have felt like satire to Bruenig. As he saw it, any defense of Donald Sterling would be preposterous; to illustrate this, he put the defense in the mouth of the most preposterous person he could think of, right-wing commentator Kevin Williamson. His point was, This opinion is so far outside the bounds of good taste that only a Kevin Williamson could argue it. Here’s an analogous piece of satire:

“The people who write for National Review are so contemptible that the rules of fair play shouldn’t apply to them,” commented Matt Bruenig.

(Note: Matt Bruenig never said this.)

As for the comment that got Kevin Williamson fired – his four-year-old Twitter quip about having “hanging more in mind” as a penalty for women who had abortions – I’ve now read his own clarification, as well as those of several sympathetic social conservatives, and I still don’t really understand, if Williamson didn’t mean to be taken literally, what he did mean. He concedes that he was being “trollish and hostile” but still seems to think the remark made sense in the context where it occurred. It probably did, to those who already shared Williamson’s background, political orientation, and sense of humour; just as Bruenig’s satirical intentions must have been clear to those already on his wavelength; just as regular readers of Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams must have grokked what he was getting at when he wrote in 2011:

The reality is that women are treated differently by society for exactly the same reason that children and the mentally handicapped are treated differently.

I missed this controversy the first time around, but Adams brought it up again last week in a post devoted to swatting down media attempts to dismiss him as “far right” or “alt-right”. He elaborated:

What my devious critics cleverly leave out of the quote is the context of the blog post and the punchline of the joke. The context was about debates on important gender-related topics, and the punchline was “It’s just easier this way for everyone.”

He then devotes most of a paragraph to explaining this punchline which, even after reading the explanation multiple times, I still didn’t get.

However, unlike his critics who had only that isolated sentence to go on, I’d read enough of Adams’s writing that I thought I could draw a dotted line from his failed joke to the idea it vaguely gestured toward. Obviously Adams doesn’t think of women as naïfs whose precious utterances should, like those of children and the mentally handicapped, be exempted from the rigours of grown-up criticism; therefore his point must have been that it is society, not him, condescendingly demanding that women be protected that way.

A plausible interpretation…but a wrong one. Looking up the original post, Adams does appear to argue that women’s opinions should be exempted from criticism; or rather, that men’s rights activists (the intended targets of his barbs) should just back off and let women have their little perquisites.

Apparently I misread the joke as badly as Adams’s most hostile critics. But why should this be surprising? I don’t know Adams. I’ve never even seen him on TV, or listened to his podcast. If I have only a fifty-fifty chance of decoding my friend Y.’s dicey attempts at humour, what are the odds of decoding a total stranger?


My father died in 2013. I can’t ask him what he thinks about President Donald Trump or the prosecution of Bill Cosby or the new Avengers movie.

But I have a dummy that I talk to all the time. The dummy looks exactly like my father, though its face gets a bit blurrier every day. It speaks in my father’s voice, though sometimes I suspect it sounds more like old audio recordings than it does like the original.

There are other ways the dummy falls short. Sometimes when I ask it a question it just sits there. Sometimes it comes back with gibberish. But even when it seems lucid and reasonable, I can’t help wondering if my real father wouldn’t have found its answers ridiculous.

When I’ve finished interrogating the dummy, I put it back in the cupboard with the others. It’s a crowded cupboard. My grandparents are in there, dusty because I take them out so rarely, their answers being too vague to be of much value. My friend Y. is in there too, a far cruder dummy than my father’s. If I want to know what Y. thinks about a topic, I just ask the real-life version. But occasionally, when real-life Y. says something whose meaning I can’t make out, I haul out his dummy for clarification.

On the upper shelf is a jumble of unfinished dummies representing people I know only through the media. Trump and Cosby are up there, and the cast of the Avengers, and Scott Adams, and Kevin Williamson. There’s even a Matt Bruenig dummy, shapeless and faceless.

When one of those people is reported as having done or said something outrageous, I take down the corresponding dummy, hoist it onto my knee, and ask it for an explanation.

And here’s the funny part. If the dummy can’t give a convincing account, I get mad at the real person.


In the blog post linked above, Adams complains that his feminist critics have damaged his reputation and reduced his income by about a third. If true, I’m sure that was annoying, but Adams is a multi-millionaire; he could afford the hit. If anything, the incident seems to have liberated him to speak his mind about other issues, which I consider a net gain for society: I find his opinions, even the kooky ones, pretty interesting.

But a one-third hit to my income would leave me literally living on the street. I’m sure I’ve said things on this blog, joking or otherwise, that would be as likely to offend strangers as anything Adams has written. Unlike him, I’m a nobody. But I’ve seen my fellow nobodies roughed up over unpopular opinions, misunderstood jokes, or nothing at all. The list of unsayable things is constantly growing. Likewise the population of potential offendees. Every one of my old posts is still online and searchable. Every new post is another tuna can left open in a forest prowled by hungry bears.

Why, then, do I keep exposing my opinions? Why does anyone, given that the likelihood of contributing anything novel or constructive to the conversation is outweighed by the likelihood of being misunderstood, stirring up fury, and upping the general level of pointless noise?

I wrote a couple weeks back about my self-published high school newspaper, and how it was inspired in part by a yen for martyrdom; an attempt to prove my valour by provoking a reaction from the school administration. Maybe it’s a similar instinct that keeps me blogging now, despite the world’s indifference. Maybe deep down I want to stir up a mob, to liven things up, to prove that I matter. A pretty contemptible motivation.

But then, it would be easy to post a stream of outrageous comments, if outrage was all I really wanted. If some part of me seeks to be misinterpreted and martyred, another part of me really longs to be understood, to help carve out a colony of mutual trust amid the howling wilderness.

The colony would be a place for grown-ups to thoughtfully, respectfully, good-humouredly bounce around controversial ideas, without fear of triggering a bear attack. We wouldn’t expect to agree about everything: that would defeat the purpose. We wouldn’t ask anyone to refrain from joking, or from vigorously defending their opinions, or from saying things that might annoy their fellow colonists.

Such a colony couldn’t function without trust. We would have to trust, when we encountered speech that seemed hostile or belittling, that the speaker didn’t really intend to harm us. Rather than reacting with name-calling or threats of violence, we would…hmm? Yes, you in the back?

So when Kevin Williamson threatens to hang women who’ve had abortions, doesn’t that constitute a threat of violence?

Uh…well, he didn’t exactly threaten anyone, did he? He argued that abortion should be punished under the law as if it were homicide.

So if I argue that men who endanger women’s reproductive freedoms oughta be put up against a wall and shot, is that a threat of violence?

Fair question. I suppose I’d say there’s a difference between rhetoric and…hey, hey! Settle down, everybody! Let’s keep things civil around here! Yes, the gentleman in the third row…?

It seems to me that rather than a vague commitment to “trust” we need a speech code that spells out explicitly–

Oh yeah, jackass, and who gets to write the speech code?

Surely, as reasonable people, we could democratically decide–

Translation, you’re confident that your side has the numbers to–

Don’t puts words in my mouth, you goddamn–

Well don’t wag your finger in my face if you want to–

That was a threat! You all heard it!




Milan Kundera and the ostriches.

I think Twitter is stupid, and I’m pretty sure Milan Kundera agrees with me.

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Tamina, a Czech emigré living in the West, is haunted by a memory of some ostriches she saw on a visit to a zoo:

There were six of them. When they saw Tamina and Hugo, they ran right up to them. All bunched together near the wire fence, they stretched out their long necks, stared, and opened and closed their broad, flat beaks. They opened and closed them feverishly, at an incredible speed, as if taking part in a debate and trying to outtalk one another, but the beaks were hopelessly mute and did not make the slightest sound.

Tamina, who is trying to convince her young boyfriend to return to Prague and retrieve some personal papers of hers, dreams about the ostriches, sees them as a portent, wonders whether they are trying to warn her about something. But Kundera has some disillusioning news for us:

Tamina will never know what they came to tell her. But I do. They did not come to warn or scold or threaten her. They are not at all concerned with her. They came, each one of them, to tell her about themselves. About how they ate, how they slept, how they ran up to the fence, and what they saw on the other side. … There they are, standing face to face with Tamina, telling her their stories, all at the same time, belligerently, pressingly, aggressively, because there is nothing more important than what they want to tell her.

Kundera, writing in 1980, peers into the future and sees ostriches everywhere. He describes the condition he calls graphomania, which he defines as the desire “to have a public of unknown readers” for one’s writing. One of the triggers for mass graphomania, he theorises, is “an advanced state of social atomization and the resultant general feeling of the isolation of the individual”. He continues:

If general isolation causes graphomania, mass graphomania itself reinforces and aggravates the feeling of general isolation. The invention of printing originally promoted mutual understanding. In the era of graphomania the writing … has the opposite effect: everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without.

As Kundera sees it, people aren’t that interested in one another’s lives to begin with:

You know what it’s like when two people start a conversation. First one of them does all the talking, the other one breaks in with “That’s just like me, I…” and goes on talking about himself until his partner finds a chance to say “That’s just like me, I…” … All man’s life among men is nothing more than a battle for the ears of others.

This reminds me of my company’s fruitless attempts to use Twitter as a marketing tool. As I’ve described before, I work for a software company, and not long ago my employers decided it was time for us to climb on the Twitter bandwagon. They assigned me the task of “tweeting” our “followers” once or twice a day. But what was I supposed to tweet about?

I wound up spending fifteen or twenty minutes every morning browsing the web for stories on reputation management that might be interesting to our followers. When I found a story, I’d log on to our account and tweet the link and a brief description of the story, then log off again. Total time spent on Twitter each day: thirty seconds.

Now, my company’s Twitter account has three or four hundred followers, and we in turn are following three or four hundred people. Sometimes I’d take a few seconds to skim the recent tweets from the people we’re following. They were deadly boring. Most of them were doing the same thing I was doing – generating noise, not attempting to take part in any kind of conversation. How can you have a conversation with three or four hundred people anyway?

After a couple weeks of this routine, I quietly let it fall off, fractionally reducing the volume of pointless verbiage out there. But I shouldn’t be too smug. Twitter might not be for me, but I produce an equal amount of pointless verbiage in blog form.

As someone who generates an awful lot of words while having very little to say, I am troubled by Kundera’s prophecy for the consequences of mass graphomania:

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding.


A few weeks ago on the Spokesmonster blog I explained why Twitter isn’t for me.

On being offensive.

To the long, long list of Newfangled Things Whose Popularity I Don’t Understand must be added another: Twitter. I signed up a couple days ago because my company, to promote its new online reputation management service, recently created a Twitter account, and it may soon be my responsibility to “tweet” our “followers”.

It’s not a responsibility I look forward to assuming. But anyhow. On Twitter the other day I noticed a tweet from a friend of a co-worker concerning the Spokesmonster cartoons. I can’t find it now, but it said something like, “That’s the funniest, most offensive ad campaign ever!”

What does it mean, this word “offensive”? What does this person mean when he writes that the cartoons are both funny and offensive? Is he actually offended by them? I doubt it, or he probably wouldn’t find them funny. I assume he means that some other unenlightened clown out there probably finds them offensive.

But where are these unenlightened clowns and exactly how are they offended? This is a question I’ve asked before, and I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer. When the first Spokesmonster cartoon, for a brief moment, in an obscure corner of the internet, stirred up a tiny flurry of controversy, it was alleged that the cartoon was offensive. But except for one commenter who declared that he or she, as a proud hillbilly, took objection to the reference to inbred “hill folk”, no-one actually said they were offended. They were outraged on behalf of somebody else.

Then there was the almost-controversy, narrowly averted, that I didn’t quite provoke with a recent blog post. In regard to the third Spokesmonster cartoon, a friend had written to tell me that he found the tone off-putting:

The word “Skankmaster” comes up, which might raise some eyebrows with investors. Annie Anklebiter slithers and hisses at the camera in a threatening way. The Reichschancellor is funny except his voice sounds like a dangerous pedophile. And then Shelby, our main character, snaps at the girl’s finger and bites yours, and you say the F-word.

The next day, alongside a sketch of the Reichschancellor, I posted to the Spokesmonster blog:

I got my co-worker Dave to record the Reichschancellor’s voice. But apparently Dave’s too nice a guy, because his delivery lacked the necessary tone of quiet menace. So I re-recorded the voice myself. A friend said the Reichschancellor “sounds like a dangerous pedophile”. I choose to take that as a compliment.

In my innocence, I thought my meaning would be obvious. I only meant that I took my friend’s comment as a compliment on my voice acting: I was trying to sound creepy, and apparently I had been successful. It has since been pointed out to me that hasty readers might misinterpret “I take that as a compliment” to mean A) that the Reichschancellor was meant to be a pedophile, and that I was flattered that my friend had picked up the reference, or even B) that I was endorsing pedophilia.

I got an email from my boss telling me to take down the pedophilia reference tout de suite; I complied; and that was that. I have no problem with my employers determining what is and isn’t appropriate on a company website. Still, in an email thread with some friends of mine, I argued about the definition of offensive. Some of my friends thought my comment was a mistake because it could be misinterpreted. Others thought that the mere mention of pedophilia violated a taboo, and even if it had been more clearly written, my comment would still have been unacceptable on a promotional blog. One friend suggested that, even if he wasn’t meant to be a pedophile, the character of the Reichschancellor was a bit touchy, because when people think “Reichschancellor” they think “Hitler”, and you shouldn’t crack jokes about Hitler.

Someone else mentioned the message that pops up in StepRep when a search comes back empty: “No results yet! But don’t worry, our worker monkeys are slaving to get you relevant results.” The topic of slavery is a little sensitive, my friend said. Aargh, I replied.

What was missing from all this discussion of offensive subjects was a single person who actually claimed to be offended. Everyone was worried about what someone else might think. Everyone was trying to read the minds of people whose existence they couldn’t be certain of.

An analogy. A record executive gets a tape from a hot new band. (My analogy is set in the distant past, like the 1980s.) He clunks the tape into his stereo and gives it a listen. He hates it. He buzzes his secretary. “This band is fucking terrible,” he says. “Make up a contract. They’re going to be huge.”

If he’s good at his job, the record executive doesn’t need to actually like the acts he signs; he just needs to have an ear for what the chumps will buy. But wouldn’t you put more faith in a record executive who shares his audience’s tastes – someone who actually likes the records he sells?

Like musical taste, offense is a highly personal thing. It’s perfectly good business to worry about what other people are going to think. But I wish people would be more explicit when they say this is offensive.

Do they mean, I am offended?

Or do they mean, The chumps aren’t going to buy this?