inessential by Brent Simmons

Social Media Mobs

Back in 2009 (I think; I don’t feel like checking) a whole bunch of people on Twitter turned on me all at once. It felt like a mob. The mob wasn’t in any way self-aware or coordinated — but it still felt like a single driven thing.

This wasn’t over culture or politics or social issues — it was over my own software and a mistake (actually two simultaneous mistakes) I had made. (The details are unimportant.)

Twitter was much younger then, with fewer people, and it was still a mostly-fun place.

But I went into a serious funk and for a year considered leaving the tech industry altogether. Shuttering this blog. Just quitting. Which is a consequence completely out-of-proportion to my actual mistakes, which were forgotten pretty soon as people moved on to other topics.

But I didn’t forget my experience. I never really recovered all the way — something left me, something about how I think about people, something I can’t quite name or describe, but it was a good thing and it left.

I’m lucky, of course — if anyone can come back from something like this, it’s someone as all-around fortunate as I am.

* * *

The mob never apologized. Mobs never do.

Imagine: a bad thing happens to you, which you perceive as wildly disproportionate, and, later on, the actors never say they’re sorry.

But who would an apology come from? A mob can’t apologize.

I started to wonder if I really deserved it after all. Maybe the mob discovered the truth about me, that I’m a bad person. I thought about what penance I should pay. (Eventually I did decide on a penance, and I did pay it, and that was wrong.) I wondered if I shouldn’t quit so much as accept a shunning.

For a long time after everyone forgot.

Anyway: that’s what that’s like.

* * *

And maybe this is why I’m extra-sensitive to social media mobs. What I went through is tiny compared to what other people have been through. Not worth remembering by anybody, not even me (though I can’t help it).

Then there was this thing with Wil Wheaton getting booted from a Mastodon instance. I don’t know much about Wil (I did watch Star Trek, of course) or what mistakes he may have made.

And I don’t care. The power of mobs in Mastodon reminds me of the power of mobs in baby Twitter of 2009. Which is to say: it’s entirely possible it will get worse and worse — as it did on Twitter — to the point where lives can be ruined and even threatened.

So I’m thinking about whether or not to stay.