Opinion

Jack Shafer

GamerGate: We now know what evil lurks in the heart of man – or trolls

Jack Shafer
Oct 17, 2014 16:23 UTC

A girl dressed in costume plays a video game at the PAX East gaming conference in Boston

For the purposes of this column, all you need to know about “GamerGate” is that it has earned writer Anita Sarkeesian, game entrepreneur Brianna Wu, and developer Zoe Quinn violent threats from anonymous Internet sources (here’s coverage in the New York TimesReason, the Washington PostVoxHuffington Post, the Guardian, and Gawker, if you want to know more).

Sarkeesian canceled a speaking engagement at Utah State University after three death threats – one promising “the deadliest school shooting in American history” — were lodged against her and the school said a state law prohibited it from banning permitted concealed weapons from the campus. Wu, who joked about GamerGate online, says ensuing violent threats caused her and her husband to flee their home. Quinn collected threats in the opening days of the “scandal” for having allegedly engaged in unethical behavior.

Many journalists have received anonymous death threats at some point in their careers from people who think a promise to execute you in Grand Guignol fashion constitutes effective press criticism. The first death threat tends to leave an unsettling impression, but over time American journalists learn that anonymous death threats, like bloody road-rage howling, can usually be ignored.

But not all murderous bile is created equal. While readers have vowed to kill or otherwise rough me up over the years, I wouldn’t equate those generic promises with what other writers — especially female ones — say they face routinely on the Web. In a January 2014 Pacific Standard piece titled “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” writer Amanda Hess, who covers sex, politics, and culture, documents the anonymous threats to kill, rape, and stalk her for speaking her mind in print.

Hess is no outlier. Last summer, in a round-up piece about online ugliness against women, the Washington Post‘s Alyssa Rosenberg provided other examples. (See also Kat Stoeffel in New York). A comic-book review by Janelle Asselin was greeted by rape threats. The comments section at the feminist site Jezebel became such a garden of sexual harassment that staffers demanded that their bosses at Gawker rein the section in. After asking on Twitter if anybody knew if any country offered free or subsidized tampons to residents, Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti was told to undergo a hysterectomy or have her vagina sewn shut for asking. “When people say you should be raped and killed for years on end, it takes a toll on your soul,” Valenti told Hess. When men she doesn’t know approach her at public events, she added, “the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”

What do Miley Cyrus, Ricky Gervais and William Shatner have in common? Quitting Twitter.

Jack Shafer
Sep 18, 2014 22:13 UTC

Singer Miley Cyrus poses backstage after winning Video of the Year for "Wrecking Ball" during the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards in Inglewood

Almost as much as celebrities love to tweet, they love to quit Twitter. And as much as they love to quit Twitter, they love to return to the social networking service.

If Nexis can be trusted, the first high-profile Twitter quitter was Miley Cyrus, who very publicly ditched the service in October 2009 at the behest of her boyfriend, actor Liam Hemsworth. Cyrus delineated her reasons for terminating her account in a rap video she uploaded, explaining to her to her 1.1 million followers that she wanted to keep her “private life private.”

Proving that returning to Twitter is as easy as quitting, Cyrus started tweeting again in April 2011 and remains a fervent user, even though she threatens to take a hiatus from the service now again. Other celebrities to quit and restart include Ricky Gervais, who left the first time after calling Twitter “pointless” in January 2010. He rejoined in September 2011. Other Twitter quitter yo-yos include John Mayer, serial quitter Alec BaldwinMinnie DriverChris BrownSylvester StalloneNick OffermanCharlie Sheen, baseball player Chris DavisJennifer Love HewittNicki Minaj, and William Shatner.

Twitter panic in the newsroom

Jack Shafer
Jul 10, 2014 22:15 UTC

 A person holds a magnifying glass over a computer screen displaying Twitter logos

With the exception of a well-drafted libel suit, nothing fills the underwear of the modern newsroom editor with liquid panic faster than social media, especially Twitter. Having invested millions of dollars and countless man-hours to erecting sturdy news standards based on fairness and impartiality, they fear that one 140-character message by an editorial employee will ravage the entire edifice.

The panic-fluids ran hot over at NPR this week after a blogger on the network’s education team tweeted, “I reach out to diverse sources on deadline. Only the white guys get back to me :(” The blogger apologized, and to her credit did not place her tweet in the burn bag. Mark Memmott, the network’s Standards & Practices supervising editor, issued a memo to remind the staff of NPR’s social media policy, which he boiled down to this: “If you wouldn’t say it on the air, don’t say it on the Web.”

Personal comments on Twitter or Facebook “can reflect on NPR and raise questions about our ability to be objective,” Memmott wrote. Citing NPR’s Ethics Handbook, he asserted that “nothing on the Web is truly private,” and that even retweets were suspect — and to be avoided! — because they can be viewed as endorsements.

If I unfollowed you, it’s because you tweeted about the World Cup

Jack Shafer
Jun 26, 2014 20:06 UTC

WC Tweet

At the rate I’m going, the number of people I follow on Twitter will have dropped from 640 to zero on July 13, after the last World Cup match concludes.

I’ve never been sentimental about Twitter, randomly unfollowing gassy and predictable feeds when flooded by their abundant and stupefying tweets, or pruning my list to make room for new voices. I can only assume that other Twitter devotees similarly budget their accounts, otherwise how could one keep up with the traffic?

Last month, soccer enthusiasts simplified the editing of my follow list by tweeting expansively about the World Cup. They published pre-game tweets. They live-tweeted matches. They offered post-game tweets. They tweeted about soccer fashion, about the officials’ bad calls, about the stadiums, other fans, the weather, other tweets, and more. If you’re a heavy Twitter user, you know what I’m talking about.

The guy who reads crap on the Web so you don’t have to

Jack Shafer
Jun 4, 2014 21:53 UTC

click777

You know that annoying guy in the office who steps on all of your punch lines? Who deflates with a concise quip the shaggy dog stories you’re trying to tell? Well, that buttinski has taken his act to Twitter where, under the username SavedYouAClick, he’s razoring the guts out of the often misleading and exploitative click-bait tweets posted by Huffington Post, Vice, Mashable, Cosmopolitan, Business Insider, TMZ, Drudge Report, and others designed to drive you to their stories.

Unlike the guy in your office, SavedYouAClick doesn’t annoy, he delights. His interruptions on Twitter are pure public service. His method is simple: grab a publication’s tweet that links to one of its stories — such as this one on Wednesday from BusinessWeek, “How China’s government is erasing the memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre” — and then retweet it with an appropriate click-saving comment. How is China erasing the Tiananmen memory? “By pretending it never happened.”

Other recent click-busters from the SavedYouAClick stream:

Adjust brightness, contrast, etc. RT @HuffingtonPost: Instagram introduces 10 new features that will take your photos to the next level

Hate your free service? Go tweet yourself

Jack Shafer
Oct 30, 2013 21:58 UTC

Twitter users by the thousands — or maybe even the hundreds! — stubbed their scrolling fingers yesterday at the news of a new default setting in the popular service. Previously, links to photos or videos in tweets hosted on Twitter servers did not appear in a user’s “timeline.” Now, visual previews “will be front and center in tweets,” the company announced.

By Web standards, the Twitter change was incremental. But as Wired‘s Mat Honan and BuzzFeed‘s John Herman explained, it nonetheless infuriated longtime users who like their information-compressed, character-based Twitter just the way it is. These veteran users regard the inclusion of visuals to their Twitter timeline like the addition of a fistful of arrowroot to their miso soup, and don’t care that the visuals will make it easier for the company — as it approaches a public offering — to sell ads and compete with the visually richer Facebook and Google+ services.

Aside from growling about it on Twitter, what can the 140-character minimalists do? Not much. Free Web service outposts like Twitter, Facebook, Google, SkyDrive, Dropbox and the rest can change their features and their terms of service (ToS) at will unless the Federal Trade Commission intercedes with a privacy audit or ruling. The only real resort for irate users is to delete their account and take their cheapskate ways to another free service. For the most part, this never happens. Back in 2010, “Quit Facebook Day” organizers convinced only 33,313 out of 400 million users to disconnect from the service, as Alex Howard reported. It turns out to be easier for someone to leave a marriage than it is to abandon a Facebook or Twitter account. If you’re fed up with your marriage, there’s a bottomless stock of potential spouses. But there is only one Twitter and one Facebook. Grow heavily invested in a free service — Google would be mine — and you’ll grudgingly surrender your golden retriever, your first-born, and your left kidney if and when the new ToS require it.

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