Twitter is no longer about small communities (but other places can be)

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2016 has been a hard year for many I know. Lots of us are still hanging on to what positivity we can, turning ennui and grief into action for themselves, for others, and against incoming attempts to install fascism and oppression around the globe.

2016 has also been hard for another reason: social media. No, I’m not talking about bloviated tweets from you-know-who. I’m talking about trying to be a decent person with a public presence on Twitter or Tumblr or Facebook or what-have-you.

These sites have, increasingly, been creating a bubble around what we read daily. No, I’m not talking about this echo chamber, not exactly. Articles like this one blame us for the problem. Instead, I’m talking about the bubble created around marketing data and “engagement” that has caused sites like Twitter to destroy their most useful feature — unfiltered and unfettered access to what people I follow say daily.

I was one of many people against Twitter’s algorithmic timeline, the odious feature that would create exactly the echo chambers the media is now decrying. Like with Facebook, we got here because our opinion doesn’t matter when weighed against businesses — the algorithmic timeline exists to funnel people into easily marketable segments that make data and ads from Facebook or Twitter easier to sell. It also serves to channel what’s most popular or best funded, even if that content is egregious bullshit.

Like many, when I started on Twitter, I used it as a feed to follow people I was interested in daily. This relationship quickly conflated friendship with readership, causing me to “follow” thousands of people while keeping a very short, private list of about 40 that I read daily.

While imperfect, this situation worked. It was easily digestible, and it let me share my art with hundreds of people daily, channeling my creativity in productive and beneficial ways. If you look back to 2014, for example, you see me substantially more positive and outgoing than I feel today.

The algorithmic timeline has, in many ways, provided the inverse. While its impact does not exist in a vacuum (many other changes occurred in 2015 and 2016 that made them especially difficult years for me), Twitter’s increasing focus on popular and paid content has come at a direct detriment to people that focus on building smaller, closer-knit communities. It’s also drowned out many starting, upcoming, and niche artists that rely on a diverse community to succeed.

Instead of keeping my relationship to my followers linear with time and with tweets, the algorithmic timeline has made this relationship hyperbolic. This means that the very successful or broadly reaching (celebrity tweets, memes, and people who focus on constant engagement to wide audiences of people) do exponentially better from Twitter’s new perspective. Conversely, this perspective has hurt people like me, who focus on smaller communities in which we feel we do the most good. If this sounds like a metaphor for similar arrangements in society, rest assured — it is.

The constant barrage of “Promoted Tweets”, “Moments”, “In case you missed it”, “Since you’ve been gone”, and “Show me the best tweets first” distracts from the most important feature Twitter once provided: reading what a small collection of friends are saying daily. And that piercingly hurts.

This arrangement has substantially amplified people who use the system to their benefit. For example, artists that use retweet campaigns and raffles (which implicitly apply operant conditioning to a wide audience) have become increasingly successful under Twitter’s model of more favorably valuing favorites and retweets in algorithmic feeds. Artists like myself, who choose to forego these techniques to provide a higher quality of signal on a tweet-by-tweet basis, generally do worse — despite our desires to continue to have a more authentic relationship with our audience.

If a hyperbolic model works for you — great! Keep doing what you do. For those whom it doesn’t work, please understand that authenticity isn’t dead, but it’s much less successful on Twitter than it used to be.

For those of us used to the unfiltered model, the result has been a slow gaslighting. Many people I know (myself included!) were easily convinced, by falling numbers and falling readership over time, that something we were doing was wrong — and that this was our own fault.

Many people who were once the most authentic and interesting voices in my timeline have, increasingly, been expressing feelings of isolation, remorse, burnout, and a lack of connection with people whom they once considered their friends. Through no fault of their own.

Increasingly concerning, many of my friends have, at different intervals, emotionally broken down. Between June and September of this year, I also broke down. I had been so reliant on Twitter as a personal emotional tether that I failed to realize when it had come undone, and worse, had become actively abusive in a hyperbolic model of conversation. It wasn’t just me.

Reading these vignettes from friends has been personally heartbreaking. So many of you are amazing, creative people that are lost in the noise through no fault of your own. Watching as increasingly loud, controversial, and popular content polarizes a once stratified and diverse community is incredibly painful.

It’s not just you. It’s the programming.

If you are like me and have been dealing with this specific form of anxiety, I strongly recommend investing in self-care and smaller communities to help you reconnect. Please remember that you are valuable.

In the vacuum of better social media options (competitors like mastodon.social seem potentially promising), I recommend Discord highly. Others have had success with Slack, Telegram, and traditional forum software. Use what works best for you.

Should you desire to chat, I can be found as Goldkin or GoldkinDrake on most services (and Goldkin#3497 on Discord). Please feel more than welcome to drop me a friend invite and say hello.

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2016, in brief

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2016 has not been a fantastic year for me. I’m going to do my best to bounce back — by reviving my projects that brought people joy in 2014 and 2015, and by adding a few new ones that I’ve not yet announced here.

I’ve bounced back from severely discouraging times before, and I’m hopeful now. Please continue to check this space and my public Twitter for more.

A year of almost tragedy

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(Content warning: vehicular injury, Trump)

On October 26th, my father was non-fatally run over by a car. He was biking home after work when a vehicle made a blind turn, running over both of his legs. Miraculously, he is expected to make a full recovery, including his abilities to walk.

I chose not share this story with social media then, because it was (and remains) deeply personal. However, in light of this recent US election and the distress so many of my followers now feel, I feel it serves a useful parable.

A good Samaritan stood by him the entire time, and may very well have saved his life. Not out of desire for compensation or some other form of greed, but due to human compassion and the desire to do the right thing.

As best as I understand events, the driver, having recognized that any action could cause further harm, kept the car halted until help could arrive. Had they attempted to flee or been scared into moving the car further, my father would have been killed. Instead, they remained calm in the face of potential tragedy, and only moved when my father, still alert and pinned by the hip under the front wheel of the car, directed them to do so.

Had anyone in this situation given into anxiety or fear, my father would not be here with us today. And for that, I am incredibly grateful.

Since the incident, my family and I have been closer than ever. We recognized that we had narrowly headed off disaster, and that in our personal darkest time, we all came together for each other. We fought the darkness in our world through calm vigilance, compassionate and decisive action, and through reminding each and every one of us how much we love them.

A scant two weeks later, Donald Trump was named President-Elect of the United States. My entire immediate family voted Hillary, myself included, staving off the awkward division many families now feel for those who voted for the hateful rhetoric of his political platform. Many of my friends are not as lucky.

I feel the same sense of distress from two weeks ago echoed by my friends and family now. But instead of fighting for a single life, we now fight for the unity and well-being of us all.

I do not know how things will play out. But what I do know is this: seeing my friends come together to protect their own has been one of my most heartening experiences. Seeing the people I care about stand up for love instead of hate, and for the right for themselves and loved ones to exist, fills me with hope.

It is this profound sense of unity, compassion, introspection, and determination, that brings us closer together in our darkest of times. It is these human characteristics that keep us together and allow us to deny the darkness within ourselves.

Let this be a year of almost-tragedy, one in which we stood up against the darkness of hatred, division, and oppression, and won. Let this be another historic time, in the long litany of historic times, in which we vehemently stood up to those that would see us destroyed for their own comforts and fears.

And, most important of all, let this be a year in which we come together for those that need us the most.

Personal Things

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Other than posting my own art, I’ve been fairly silent the past two months. This was, I think, necessary — after having a public emotional breakdown on Twitter, I backed off and took time to focus on my physical and emotional health.

I think this was the right decision. Especially with politics being inescapable on Twitter right now, backing off to recover sanity and emotional balance is probably the best thing I could do.

Given my usually candid and good-natured humor, which contrasted heavily with my awkward-to-gut-wrenchingly-painful posts prior to my departure, I’ve felt awkward, estranged, and extremely ashamed of how I’ve treated people publicly. I was too candid about raw and emotionally-charged problems in a public forum — which I hadn’t realized was happening. I realized way too late that public Twitter was no longer the analog to private conversations on LiveJournal that it had once been to me, much to my horror when once very good friends of mine (reasonably!) stood up to my behavior. I erred, I hurt and estranged several people I deeply care about unexpectedly, and I am infinitely sorry for having done so.

“But how could you possibly think that,” someone in the back of the room shouts, “you have over a thousand people following you on Twitter. How could you possibly think this is a small audience?”

They have a point. When I approach Twitter and social media, I assume that the vast majority of readership is passive. While my profile lists 1,329 people (at this writing), only about 15-20 people comment or acknowledge what I write regularly. This causes me to substantially undervalue passive readership, which over time, caused me to be as candid as I would with close friends. Candor which, lacking the benefit of context, can be awkward or even dangerous to other people.

And so, when I tried using my public Twitter to discuss difficult social problems in my life, shit hit the proverbial fan. Ohhhh. Awkward.

Regardless of the content of my message, I screwed up. I brought drama unwittingly to over a thousand people when it’s not my normal modus operandi. And I legitimately had no idea until way too late. This post cannot contain enough instances of “sorry” for how I feel about that.

“Hang on,” the same person shouts from the back of the room. “You’re telling us you have over a thousand followers and a multi-year Twitter and forum history, and you don’t understand how drama works?” As hard as that is to swallow — yes. I am practiced at avoiding and diffusing drama, because that’s my nature. I try to be careful, methodical, insightful, and productive — even in the face of extreme abuse and antipathy. Forum trolls suck, yo.

But the flipside is I have absolutely zero experience at handling situations when drama is unavoidable. This usually leaves me hiding under my pillow fortress of choice, cowering in fear, rocking back and forth trying to convince myself that things will be okay. Give me a cell phone at the wrong time during that process, and…

Well.

“So what you’re saying is you have this stoic and calming public image, and you had an emotional tirade on Twitter?”

Yes.

“And that caused people to lose trust in you?”

Yes.

“Dude, we all have those. It’s okay.”

Even so, I’m still very sorry that I hurt people. I’d really like to reach out to people and reconnect, but I’ve been feeling scared to do so for months due to feeling extremely awkward and scared that people will keep bringing this up. Shutting myself in and isolating myself from people I care about for that long has been one of the emotionally hardest things I’ve ever done to myself.

Help me help you. If you’d like to reconnect, drop me a line? The usual channels, including Twitter, work. If you have no other way to reach me, send a quick email to goldkin.drake at that Gmail thingy, and I’ll get you set up.

And again: sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry (ow, said it too much). If you choose to reach out, do be gentle and patient with me. Even after months of self-care and therapy, I’m still emotionally raw, and I’ll freely admit that I’m still not back at 100%. But, I’m trying my very best.

Last Minute VPN

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During three wee hours of the morning, I set up OpenVPN at home. This would have been simpler had I actually been at home.

Instead, I did this from two states away: a digital moon shot in which I remotely reconfigured my home server, router, and modem to create a new connection. While mundane by sysadmin standards (I do this all the time for work), the fact I did this entirely from a Chromebook and a Linux box at home is an accessible tale of late night ninjitsu that made me feel quite clever.

My kit for this setup:

  • One SSH connection, previously set up on a box at home
  • One Chromebook
  • One iPhone with wireless tether

The recipe was something like this:

  1. Use ChromeOS’ Secure Shell plugin to connect remotely to my box at home.
  2. Set up a SOCKS proxy, which is now supported by the SSH plugin.
  3. Remotely touch my router’s and modem’s web interfaces to punch a new forwarding port.
  4. Set up OpenVPN server and its PKI on my home box.
  5. Set up OpenVPN Connect on my phone.
  6. Gmail myself my client configuration and certs (!), because this is one of the few ways OpenVPN Connect can configure itself.
  7. Fail to connect a dozen times because OpenVPN server has a zillion bugs in its certificate parser.
  8. Curse loudly.
  9. Enable OpenVPN server logging.
  10. Fix my client certificates to not break the parser (eg, specify an actual email address instead of “Rawr”).
  11. Send my key again.
  12. Bounce the server.
  13. Connect my shiny new OpenVPN client to my home server.
  14. Get the [VPN] indicator on my iPhone.
  15. Cheer loudly, because it finally fscking works.

Any of these steps could have failed, ending my run. This would have been bad, because most VPN service providers are dangerously terrible: I much prefer a connection with Comcast to any of the free VPN startups that do unspecified things with customer data. When any of these connections is “free”, chances are you are the product being sold.

It is incredible that we live in a world in which these shenanigans are not just possible, but commonplace. I’m especially pleased this worked, because it means I can connect to wifi at a convention I’ll be visiting without compromising my security.

Never doubt the tenacity of a network engineer with SSH and a singular need. We will surprise you, and I find that glorious.

New Comic Blog!

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Hi all! For those reading here that don’t follow any of my other social media accounts: exciting thing! I just started a new comic blog over at https://lipsumdrake.wordpress.com/

Since this is all part of the WordPress network, any accounts created here will also work over there for commenting purposes.I hope you enjoy it!

A Brief Service Announcement

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I’ve often said that the reason I don’t engage in politics on my personal blogs is I intend to create a safe space for my readers. This is true. However, it doesn’t cover my motivations especially well.

I’ve been thinking about how to explain this better lately. I wanted to further describe how I use my personal spaces, including why I try to make my art and writing a relaxing place for all of you.

I was once a very engaged activist on a few topics that greatly interested me. I discovered during this activism phase that voicing strong opinions and loud opposition were counterproductive to my life’s goals. Specifically, it created a tone of dissatisfaction and general negativity in both myself and my audience that fed upon itself, creating an echo chamber that made me feel increasingly miserable.

I’ve noticed this about many communities on social media, especially certain technical communities and militant blogs. While many of them make good points and channel this negativity to productive ends, their methods of presentation — often damning, insulting, or deeply shaming — leave the reader with an overwhelming sense of despair.

Instead of engaging in the negative feedback loops these create, I’ve decided to make my audience feel good about themselves through what I share and post here. This creates a positive feedback loop that leaves me with emotional energy to explore and read from a distance, and provides a much needed beacon of positivity amidst the frustration and anger.

My life isn’t perfect, and I have many of my own problems. But these are matters I prefer to keep personal or to a very small set of people, instead of reflecting them back at all of you. I have the luxury of being able to live quietly in this way, and I try to use it to the very best of my abilities.

In short: my voice to you is one that I try to keep positive. I like to think that it helps people emotionally recover and get that much further through their day, or to crack a smile when it’s most needed. This is what I enjoy, not because I’m trying to extract anything out of goodwill, but because it makes me feel good too.