Twitter is a MMORPG

Playing Games With Strangers, Part 1

[Bearistotle gazes upon his trolls.]

Most people think Twitter is a communications application, a way to send and receive messages to a large group of people. I think this view is mistaken. Twitter is better understood as a gaming app, although not everyone consciously uses it that way. To be more precise, Twitter is a sandbox massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG), kind of like World of Warcraft. This issue of The Strong Paw of Reason explores this idea and what it means for how we should define ethics, or “right conduct,” on Twitter.

This issue of Strong Paw is the first in a series that embarks on a project of speculative re-norming digital encounters. My goal in the series is to begin to reimagine the relevant social norms that guide and constrain behavior in digital spaces. This particular issue was originally part of another, still not finished issue, about rethinking the ethical responsibilities of hospitality in light of the internet’s world historical transformation of strangers. As I wrote that other post—and this happens frequently when you write—my ideas got larger than I felt a single essay could sustain. In particular, I was making a claim that I’ve made elsewhere before that I think is interesting on its own and that required more room to breathe and stretch its legs. The great thing about publishing my own newsletter is that when I want to just write more about something, I just do! And while I recognize that my Substack flavor is increasingly “excruciatingly long form essay,” even I have my limits. So I’m breaking one massive essay into smaller (but still substantial) chunks that I hope will be easier for you to digest. This issue takes on what it means for Twitter to be a game and how that should shape ideas about ethics on Twitter.

The main substance of today’s post starts in Section II with some analysis about communication and technology, but, before we turn to the meat of today’s issue, however, there’s some modest policy changes to the newsletter that I want to tell you about.

I. The Troll Toll

Last week, a bunch of trolls tried to deface Strong Paw with some nasty defamatory invective that was unrelated to the substance of my writing. I really don’t mind insults, but I do dislike discourtesy. And I consider it rude to enter my digital home and insult me without bothering to read what I’ve written—that’s just vandalism! I wound up deleting the comments and revoking the commenting privileges for the email addresses in question, but the trolls re-registered under new email addresses and reposted the same comments. I responded just as I had done before. We continued this dance over the week. It was irritating. It was not terribly time-consuming, but it was a nagging chore I’m not interested in doing and that I resent being made to do.

I’ve responded to the vandals by instituting a policy change: I’ve turned on the pay subscription option and I’ve switched commenting privileges only to paying subscribers. If any trolls out there want to deface my newsletter they’ll have to pay me for the privilege. It’s a modest $4 per month but I reckon most trolls will decline that bargain. I am also beginning to lock older issues that deal with the ongoing research I intend to publish in my book projects, although that is something I’ve intended to do from the start. As a bonus, paying subscribers will have full access to all of that and my gratitude for supporting the newsletter.

This is all to say that, for the vast majority of free readers, this will only impact you insofar as you won’t be able to comment. You’ll still be able to read new issues of the newsletter much as you did before. I am ambivalent about all of this—I prefer open universal goods such as “everyone can comment for free”—but this seems to be the only way to retain any commenting functionality while also allowing me to create a structural barrier for rude trolling. My intention in doing this is not to turn Strong Paw into a big source of revenue—I don’t think that’s either realistic or desirable—but I do think there are legitimately good reasons why you should subscribe. Here’s what I would highlight:

1) If you value my writing, it’s a good way to thank me. (Tweets, emails, Facebook posts, etc. also accomplish that).

2) If you want me to dedicate more time to this newsletter and less time to other things it would encourage that reprioritization.

3) Modest revenue would allow me to pay someone to lightly edit Strong Paw, which would improve my writing and your experience of it.

4) Modest revenue would also allow me to pay guest contributors whose work I would like to showcase and promote. I haven’t done that yet, but it would be fun to introduce you to the writing of people who help me think.

5) It would be a funny way to stick it to some truly assholish trolls.

Maybe these don’t strike you as good reasons to subscribe, and maybe they do. Personally, I think you should subscribe because the newsletter will be better for it and I want it to be good.

In any case, I will candidly admit this all irritated me. The good news for you is that I do my best thinking when I’m irritated, sad, melancholic, depressed, angry, and bothered. For whatever reason, negative affect tends to stimulate my thinking—maybe I’m trying to reason my way out of a bear-trap?—and this post is the bounty you shall reap. Enjoy!

II. Analysis for Tools

[Remember watches?! Weird, right?]

To understand what I mean by gaming, let’s compare Twitter to the paradigmatic communications tools of the moment: cell phones.

A cell phone company is selling you the ability to send and receive information—to communicate. Those companies sell you a phone and charge you a monthly fee to use it. Depending on your plan, the more you use your phone, the more you may owe the cell company. The cell company is mostly indifferent to how you use your phone, but the operative assumption, for both you and the company, is that you will mostly use your cell phone as a tool. Namely, you will use it as a tool to send and receive information.

Martin Heidegger wasn’t right about everything—for example, he was a literal Nazi!—but he did offer a nifty set of concepts about technology that gets called “tool analysis” by pompous intellectuals such as myself. Heidegger famously asserted that you don’t really notice a tool unless it’s broken. When it’s working properly it acts as a seamless extension of your will. You use it to act on the world in a way that makes it recede from your consciousness. If you are swinging a hammer, for example, it becomes to your conscious self not unlike your hand and you cease to notice it or “how” it functions. Heidegger calls this Zuhanden or “ready-to-hand.” If the hammer’s handle is loose or broken and it becomes difficult to wield, let alone to hammer in nails, you’ll notice it. You will become aware of the hammer and you will have to ponder how it functions and why it is not functioning as a perfect extension of your will. Suddenly, the nature of the object is foregrounded and you must, in turn, ponder the nature of the other objects it is brought into relation with: your arm, the nail, the board you are hammering the nail into, and the house that is being constructed from those boards. It is in the moment when an object resists our will that it becomes, for Heidegger, a true object of thought. He calls this Vorhanden, or “present-at-hand.” And it is in Vorhanden that the nature of an object is disclosed—when its fundamental ontological reality can be grasped—what it means for a thing to be as the thing it is.

[This hammer is Vorhanden af.]

You may think it counterintuitive that the ontological structure of the world is only disclosed in its fracture and breaking, but this idea will tell you quite a bit how you use your cell phone. If all goes according to plan your cell phone will be Zuhanden. This means that your cell phone is performing its role when it recedes from your awareness and becomes just an extension of your will—how you work on the world. When it is functioning properly, your phone will help you gather and disseminate the information you use to navigate the social reality of your daily life without calling attention to itself: Do I have any new emails? What time does the Super Target close? What will the weather be like today? What is the fastest route to New York City? Who won the game last night? What is my friend up to and do they want to chat? Did my mother remember to make the doctor’s appointment? Does anyone in my vicinity want to have sex with me tonight? Your phone can tell you the answer to all of these questions and more! You may even begin to navigate the world almost exclusively through your screen without even realizing it—that is, until the moment your phone malfunctions. The screen cracks. You lose cell service. You become afflicted with a dreaded “ghost touch” bug. When any of these things happen your phone ceases to be a portal and you become intensely, maddeningly aware of your cell phone as an object.

As cell phones have gotten smaller and more powerful we’ve edged closer to the sort of arrangements that you find in science fiction stories. (Indeed, our current cell phones are not unlike what people a half century ago wrote about in their aspirational techno-fantasies.) In those stories, communicative networks are so well integrated into cognitive processes that people no longer even recognize them as neural prostheses. Heidegger had some ambivalent feelings about this in his later writings on technology: he was concerned that all the jagged edges and broken lines of existence were being consolidated into what he called the “Map of the World.” This state of affairs made it possible for anything and everything, including humanity itself, to be made available and liquidated into a “standing reserve” for action which, in turn, Heidegger saw as essentially the destruction of the ontological conditions for human being. He named this as the “problem of technology” not reducible to any particular historical iteration. Without adjudicating the accuracy of Heidegger’s diagnosis—you will see why in a moment I don’t think it should be a source of concern about Twitter—I want to emphasize that Heidegger’s anxieties foreground an aspirational fantasy for your cell phone. The purest cell phone would collapse all distance between reality and virtuality and render movement between them frictionless.

This is important to consider when you think about the relationship between your phone and the various programs you use to operate it. Your phone is structured to perform tasks in ordered ways according to different programs, apps, of which, Twitter is one. For the most part, you choose and use apps based on how well they perform a particular task or set of tasks, how well they let your phone be Zuhanden. The app economy is structured so that multiple apps designed to complete the same task compete with each other for users (this is why I have like four different “white noise” apps, none of which I really like). It used to be that iPhones exercised app monopolies on some hardware function, but even those are now functionally competitive. WhatsApp isn’t the same thing as the “phone” and “message” app, but it functionally competes with them even though it uses a different network and programming architecture to perform those tasks. This means that if your goal is to launch an app that, say, sends messages, you probably should take care that it performs that task in the most unobtrusive and reliable way possible. You should not insert weird random functionality features that diminish the ability of the user to send messages. This might include artificial and highly constrained message lengths, algorithms that arbitrarily select which of your contacts receives the message, or functions that require that the message only be available when both you and the intended recipient are using the app. All of these would be extremely unattractive features of a messaging app because they would make it hard for you to send and receive messages.

This is exactly why Twitter makes no sense as a communications app. It’s really bad at helping people communicate! Or more specifically, Twitter is not designed to let you effectively and predictably relay messages to an intended recipient or recipients and it is extremely limited in performing that task. The most obvious limit—the length of messages—is probably the least serious, which is saying something, because that’s a grave limit. Beyond it, you have no way of knowing who will read what you tweet in advance and it’s impossible to guarantee that any particular person or group of people will read any particular message. Opaque algorithms dictate when and how your tweet circulates and who sees it. It’s hard to tell just who follows you and it’s hard to know who you should follow. The meanings of particular in-app functions are ambiguous: Retweets don’t mean endorsements… unless they do! The “thread” and “reply” functions generate vast and tangled labyrinthine webs of speech that do less to order conversation then to disorder it. No one uses the hashtag function except confused boomers. None of these functions is designed to optimize communication. It is rather like if some substantial portion of humanity was gathered around a single lake and everyone was continuously throwing and retrieving messages-in-bottles in and out of the lake. Not very reliable!

While it’s true that a viral tweet can garner a huge amount of impressions that communicates ideas, for most users it’s nearly impossible to guarantee any particular tweet will go viral and most accounts never have any viral tweets. Yes, gigantic accounts can use Twitter as an effective platform to make announcements. Those accounts are usually gigantic because they are owned by entities that are independently notable and have other ways to effectively communicate. And you really have to be gigantic for that to work. I have close to 13,000 followers and most of my tweets garner a few thousand impressions at most. Meanwhile, the only thing sadder than the crickets that follow tweeting something you really care about is begging people to retweet one of your tweets. Tressie McMillan Cottom once tweeted something along the lines that begging for retweets never works because it’s trying to fabricate organic network effects. And she’s right! It never works. All this means that messages you want people to see don’t get seen and messages you may not want many people to see do get seen and the messages you want some people to see get seen by other people and vice versa. You don’t exercise much control over any of that. You might say that Twitter is such a mess when it comes to communication that they had to include a separate communication app in the app—the direct message.

So why do people use Twitter if it’s so bad at relaying their messages to intended audiences? I suppose some portion of its users misuse the app—they try to gather and disseminate information through an app that is not well designed for that task—but I suspect that most people use Twitter because they do find it engaging. That’s right, the main reason people use Twitter is not because it performs useful communication tasks—LOLOLOLOL—but because the experience of using it is affecting even though it doesn’t allow users to seamlessly act on the familiar objects of their social world. I do not just mean that Twitter literally gives you little shots of dopamine every time someone “likes” your tweet, though there is evidence that it does. I mean that Twitter is decisively not Zuhanden. More to the point, it is the very brokenness of Twitter as a device of communication that discloses its nature as an object and solicits your investment in and engagement with it.

Twitter is Vorhanden. The virtual space of Twitter is the object itself, a virtual space you enter through the app and that generates a fracture from the ordinary social world. Twitter is not exactly enjoyable, mind you, because this break in the world unleashes chaos and misunderstanding. Twitter does not really “work” on the objects of your ordinary social world for, if it did, you would surely recognize that your tool is broken: the things it primarily affects are internal and recursive. For many users, accessing the space of Twitter is intrinsically captivating as an end in itself precisely because to enter it is to experience the partiality and failure of communication, a ceaseless struggle with language that is endlessly recursive and never resolves the world outside of itself. Twitter is a lousy and shallow world, to be sure. But it is a world and, like all worlds, it is a world that is structured as a game.

III. Faith in Strangers

Twitter is a game in this sense: it is A) a distinct and defined space of play B) in which players have a limited and circumscribed set of allowable moves and C) in which those moves take on meaning through dynamic interactions with other players.

Twitter is delimited as a distinct and defined space much as a basketball game is spatially and temporally defined by the court and the game clock. It’s clear when you’re doing something in the game—it’s literally on—even if what you do in the game relates to things outside of the game, much as Michael Jordan earned a bunch of money by playing basketball. Twitter’s moves are “post,” “reply,” “like,” “retweet,” “quote tweet,” “follow,” “unfollow,” “block,” and “mute.” You can combine those moves in different ways to interesting effect: replying to your own posts creates a thread, for example. Meanwhile, all of these actions are meaningful in relationship to everyone else who is on Twitter. Sometimes it turns out those other players aren’t real people—so-called “bots”—but that doesn’t really matter. You can interact with them and the result is a series of moves and countermoves. But to what end?

Twitter is a “sandbox” game so the end is not dictated by the program. Instead, Twitter is an “open” space of play where players get to define their own objectives and play continuously until they choose to stop. This is not like conventional closed-world video games, such as Super Mario Brothers. In that game, you have an objective defined by the programmers: You have to save the Princess and defeat Bowser and it’s really hard to play the game in any other way. You can only start at the beginning and move sequentially forward to the end, like a linear narrative. When you run out of lives, the game is “over” and you have to start fresh from the beginning. Some games expand out from this by offering multiple linear pathways to the objective, or by introducing several objectives. But “sandbox” games are different in that objectives are defined by the user in relationship to the full menu of the game’s features and there is no “start” or “end.” I enjoy the “fishing” feature of Animal Crossing, so I fish a lot when I play that game. Other users may enjoy exploring islands, and that’s what they do. The game design creates the possibility to do both things and then it lets the user decide, just as in a sandbox there’s no single correct castle to build.

As I wrote about in “Bearistotle Solves Free Speech,” people on Twitter wind up building very different castles in this sandbox:

Some users are trying to rack up big follower counts and never read anyone else’s tweets. Some users like to read other people’s tweets for information and edification and they spend time figuring out who it’s best to follow. Some users just want a place to make jokes and see if they can make one go viral. Some users are trolls who delight in drawing (what they perceive to be) negative emotional reactions from other users. Some users are just looking to “dunk” and don’t really care all that much who they dunk on or how they do it. All these users play in the same venue, they navigate and interact with each other, and they all get to define their own objectives. They also choose the “content” of their speech: some people dunk on political tweets; others dunk about pop stars. This is what makes Twitter a fun game to play, even if people don’t know they’re playing a game.

For the most part, I would say my own game-play falls somewhere between “building a following” and “dunking.” I think dunking is fun and I enjoy the artistry of it, though, if I’m being honest, I think I’m better at building a following than dunking. “Building a following” is an attractive game objective for me because it may have some desirable benefits outside of Twitter—it’s how most of you learned about Strong Paw and perhaps it will help me land a book contract at some point. It’s also relatively easy to see how I’m doing and chart my progress, characteristics that make game-play enjoyable for me.

[One of my better dunks.]

Aha, you may say, a contradiction! Aren’t you trying to use Twitter as a tool to act on the world? Isn’t Twitter merely a tool for you to gain fame and wealth? No! Let’s go back to Michael Jordan. Basketball is definitely a game. Michael Jordan played the game to win, and surely one of the benefits of playing basketball for him was that he made boatloads of money. But it would be silly to conclude that money played any role in how Michael Jordan played the game—when he shot and when he passed, for example—or that the fact that made money from it, stopped it from being a game. His game play was mostly dictated by his immediate desire to win the game (and maybe to humiliate his opponents), which is why there are plenty of people who made boatloads of money playing in the NBA and did not win as frequently as Michael Jordan. When basketball fans argue about who is the best basketball player of all time, they don’t just rank them according to lifetime earnings. Similarly, there is no Twitter move called “add followers.” The only way to add followers is to play the game. (Ok, you can also buy a bunch of bot followers, but that’s a special and muddy case.) If all I did on Twitter was ask people to follow me, no one would follow me. That’s what makes building a large following an interesting and engaging challenge, for, surely, if it was not a challenge, more people would have large accounts.

Again, because Twitter is Vorhanden does not mean it does not relate to my ordinary social world, but rather that it resists my efforts to use it Zuhanden as mere instrument. The point is that how it will shape my social world cannot be assumed or easily predicted. Twitter relates to my ordinary world but holds itself apart from it, a sort of mysterious player that enters and withdraws without warning. People I know in real life follow me on Twitter, and when I see them, we joke about Twitter things. Hilariously, once when I was sitting in a coffee shop here in Durham, the person sitting next to me who I had never met before volunteered that he followed me on Twitter and that he enjoyed my content. Upon hearing this exchange, another person sitting on the other side of me volunteered that, while he had never met me nor the first person before, he too followed me and also enjoyed my content. Meanwhile, I assume that administrators at Duke are at least vaguely aware of the fact that I sometimes stir up controversy on Twitter. Indeed, various administrators follow me on Twitter and will reference my Twitter persona in meetings. To reason through all of this, however, is what makes Twitter Vorhanden. The way in which Twitter’s relationship to my social world is broken is precisely the thing that makes it a more entrancing game: that I cannot control how it mediates between my will and my world is the thing that returns me to the game.

Since my mantra of late is “people are different from each other,” I try to remind myself that not everyone plays Twitter the same way. If I want to understand what’s going on in any given engagement, it’s important to try to understand what the other player’s objectives are on their terms rather than my own. Some users have no interest in building large follower counts and even see that as a deeply undesirable outcome. Some believe they are communicating—they have not yet noticed that their hammer is broken—but that they do not know they are playing does not change the fact that it is a game. And, as I suggested above, trolls are playing to generate negative emotional reactions from the people they interact with, presumably because they find it satisfying, and perhaps pleasurable, to do so.

It’s easy to get moralistic about the troll’s behavior because it makes someone actually feel bad when a troll succeeds. But keep in mind that most games generate negative affect and bad feelings: even when the game is arbitrary and without stakes, many people don’t like to lose and feel bad when they do! Arguably, professional sports produce net negative affects. Every year the NFL season produces exactly 1 ecstatic and happy fan base and 31 disappointed and unhappy losers. The limit case, of course, is if when we can connect in-game trolling to grave social and political consequences outside of the game, though it’s not always easy to clearly describe how or if they connect. And if we can’t, it’s hard to come up with a reason to judge run-of-the-mill trolls too harshly unless you impose some idea of good sportsmanship on them, and that requires some additional ethical norming that most people haven’t really thought through. For example, if you tell the troll Please stop. This isn’t fun for me, the troll may respond, But not doing it isn’t fun for me. Why should we play by rules I didn’t agree to that are geared for your enjoyment but not mine? Meanwhile, the fact that there are many players with different objectives—including trolls—is part of what makes Twitter an engaging game, what renders it an unpredictable and chaotic space. If all the players had the same style of play, it would be more boring and predictable. The fun is when different kinds of players must negotiate with the diverging interests and objectives in play, the very thing that renders communication difficult, unpredictable, and broken.

It may be helpful, then, to also understand that the self that is articulated on Twitter is a distinct persona not fully within your control and not merely a one-to-one reconstruction of the self that inhabits your ordinary social world. It is banal to observe that Twitter personas are exaggerated and distorted versions of who we are in “real life” and I don’t think this gets at the full profundity of the situation. Twitter tasks us with communicating a version of our self through a tool that is already irreparably broken, like asking a child to make a self portrait using only a fat marker, a napkin, and a funhouse mirror. Because we cannot control our Twitter communications—our moves are always partial and frustrated and the medium through which they reverberate is shattered and incomplete—the self that those communications call into being is just like the broken hammer: an object that takes on its ontological weight because it is not a seamless and perfect extension of our will, but an object that stands apart and resists my will. My Twitter persona is a stranger, not only to other players, but to myself.

What does this all mean for ethical norms that constrain conduct on Twitter? Twitter is now at the center of our culture war, one of the primary sites where, we are told, cancel culture is organized and speech is suppressed. We often hear that there is a need to reconsider the ethics and governance of speech on Twitter.

To begin with, Twitter is an unprecedented experiment in millions of strangers trying to amicably socialize in the absence of any sort of preexisting agreed normative framework. People try to assert normative frameworks for conduct on Twitter, but they tend to begin with the assumption that Twitter is a space of communication and therefore that the norms governing it should be an extension of those that govern ordinary speech acts. It is hard to imagine a theory of ethical communication that does not begin with fidelity to truth as a core ethical commitment. How truth is defined may be a subject of controversy, but the ethics of communication cannot be easily separated from an ethics of truth-telling.

Yet any normative project that requires a high degree of correspondence between ordinary social relations and online social relations is more or less doomed from the start. If people engage Twitter as a game and define their conduct, consciously or unconsciously, in relationship to the game and selves Twitter constitutes, ordinary social relations will have little normative force. What does it mean to scold a troll for dishonesty? Norms of honesty are functionally observed in ordinary social relations not just because they are morally compelling but because their violation can bring serious material consequences for both the party who was lied to and to the party who lied. The problem is that numerous games constantly incorporate dishonesty as an allowable move, which, in turn, means that our troll may not find it the demand for honesty any more morally compelling than the claim that they must use their birth name in Animal Crossing. To make matters worse, the material consequences of such lies are speculative and difficult to show. When a troll lies are they hurting another Twitter persona or are they hurting the person who haphazardly operates that persona? I say this not as an apologia for Twitter dishonesty, but as a neutral statement of fact: if Twitter is a game and we are playing the game, how do we know that dishonesty is, in fact, unethical? It may still be the case that dishonesty on Twitter is unethical—I will choose to continue to try to be honest on Twitter—but the idea that we should realistically expect ordinary norms of honesty to bind other players seems to assume that the game produces interests and affects that correspond well to ordinary sociality. But they simply don’t. As Anton Chigurh put it, “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” If we expect that outcome, we should expect to be disappointed.

I do not think re-norming Twitter, however, is a hopeless task. Recognizing the barriers to honesty acting as an effective norm will be a necessary precondition to re-norming Twitter along lines that make sense for it as a game. We play games all the time, and we invent norms for those games that effectively govern conduct. Our gaming ethics need not be indifferent to truth, but they also need not assume truth as the first principle. Perhaps it is time we disinvested in an ethics inherited from ordinary communication and began to think about a gaming ethics based in the fairness of the contest: conduct that allows as many players as possible to enjoy the game and that seeks to limit the harm they incur by playing. To this idea we will return in the next issue in this series.