The Ontology of Swarm, A History Boy, 23/11/2016

About Two or Three Months Ago

I took some pictures of a creepy-looking guy on the subway with a bunch of anime and gaming pins on his bag. I didn’t show his face, but I tweeted it with some commentary about how he was probably a fascist.

Over the Weekend

So a few days ago, somebody found this old tweet thread and posted a screencap on a 9gag ripoff forum. And the swarm began.

Well, they finally saw me.
Starting from about Sunday, I’ve gotten a steady stream of insults from the greater anime-avatar commentariat. It’s been a pretty diverse stream. And as of Tuesday night when I hit “publish,” it’s been chugging along steadily. It’s been 500 mentions and retweets of mentions, and probably a little over 100 original insults.

A lot of sanctimonious call-outs. How dare I call the members of this three-day (and counting) pile-on bullies when I photographed a guy’s bag and made presumptions about his character. I’ve also been called a psychopath, a retard, a jabroni, and a cuck from the global capitol city of cucks.

I’ve never been on the receiving end of this kind of swarm social media attack. I’ve seen them, of course, and read about them and their consequences. But this is the first time I’ve faced a swarm myself. It’s quite fascinating, really.

For one thing – and this is probably a consequence of my long-term exposure to this online culture, its relatively low intensity against me, and my own relative whiteness – the visceral effect of the insults died out pretty fast.

Now, the insults continue. But they became monotonous remarkably quickly, petering out into a steady stream of repetitive noise. The form of the attack is more intriguing to me.

Social media swarms are similar to DDoS attacks, except carried out through the intentional actions of humans. It’s a distributed attack without a central director. The director isn’t human, at least. It's the screencap itself that directs their activity – a signal that points the way to a particular action.

A swarm is an attack where each individual movement has little
consequence or power in itself, but because it consists of thousands or
millions of such movements, their combined power is immense, even
though each movement is autonomous. Swarm's power is in mass
and simultaneity.
In this case, it’s calling me a sociopath projecting his own racism on innocent JRPG fans.

No one in this swarm has done anything other than send a single insult or retweet one or two tweets in the conversation. Then they go away. But there are enough that a steady stream of activity has continued.

Yet while the swarm is composed of complex, intelligent human agents, its action itself isn’t very complicated – a steady stream of repetitive 4chan-stewed insults. Its power is in its brute force – the sheer number of signals cluttering my mentions with acidic contempt.

A Decade or So Ago

I’ve been a nerd all my life. Dorky, socially awkward sometimes, smart, wearing glasses, into weird art like Werner Herzog films and big difficult books. I had a go for a career as a professional academic with a PhD and everything.

And I was bullied a lot as a kid and a teenager – mostly by sports jocks and a few school hoodlums, as well as a couple of classmates who were in treatment for severely violent impulses.

Even after I developed a personality and persona that could get along with pretty much everyone, I saw some pretty awful stuff. When I was 17, my high school’s basketball team put money up among each other for a bet – the winner was whoever could fuck a friend of mine. They thought it was worth a payout because they called her a horse-face.

So when nerd culture took over the culture in the early 21st century with superhero movies, popular sci-fi culture like The Matrix and Doctor Who, Silicon Valley’s prestige, and Dan Harmon’s celebration of misfits Community? I felt proud to have been a nerd. I thought those values – pride in intelligence, love of dorky things, the esteem of misfits and freaks – were good for society.

A recent place where I read about the ontology of
swarm attacks was Multitude by Antonio Negri. He
was mostly talking about DDoS attacks, but social
media harassment mobs move by the same
About Two or Three Months Ago

But geek culture has a dark side. A weirdly racialized, gender-focussed malevolent side. I’ve written about this before, and I’m not the only one. I need only say the words and expect at minimum some googling to refresh your memory – GamerGate, the Quinnspiracy, Hijack the Hugos, the Alt-Right, Mencius Moldbug.

As I saw more and more nerds giving in to the rage and resentment of pick-up culture, misogyny, right-wing libertarian culture, and white nationalism, I’ve lost my ability to identify as a nerd. I mean, objectively, I’m pretty nerdy. I write about philosophy, literature, and sci-fi on a blog constantly.

But the values of so many nerd communities have diverged so much from my own that I can’t really consider myself part of that group anymore. That's why I thought what I thought when I saw that dude sitting next to me on the subway – the new signifiers of an insular, resentful bastard who hates women are anime and sci-fi fandom.

So I’m left digging my Twitter mentions out from under thousands of locust husks, wondering how many people who’ll be in the theatre with me at Rogue One this Xmas sent ape photos to Leslie Jones or rape threats to Anita Sarkeesian.

Of course, the answer will be “Nobody” because all the alt-right nerds will boycott Rogue One for having a woman in the lead role, and my GF and I will be surrounded by hipster geek women enjoying a fine film together.

1 comment:

  1. Taking a creepy picture of a kid in public, building some fantasy alt-right straw man out of some pins in the person's bag and trying to shame that person publicly - that's still A-OK to you?

    And the fact that you mention how you were bullied and it sucked, but then carry out the same exact behavior (and beg people for money to continue this kind of thing), how can you not understand that this sort of behavior is beyond messed up?!

    You can try playing these word games to try to justify your behavior, but the response you got can be summed up very simply: "you reap what you sow."