If there’s one thing that I find amusing in technological journalism, it’s the notion that social networking sites can “do” things, the frequent and possibly unknowing widespread tendency to personify these platforms as independent entities capable of making decisions. Any day of the week a casual Internet user can stumble upon ads and articles with headlines like “The Top 30 Reasons Facebook Causes Depression” without even looking (I barely had to myself). Facebook as a concept in itself does not and cannot cause depression. Facebook in application can in that it is a construct made up of the posts and interactions of numerous human individuals controlling and consuming a framework established for them by other human individuals. Tumblr itself does not attach trigger word warnings and establish humorous nicknames for Benedict Cumberbatch; it is the collective action and influence of the faithful users of Tumblr who merely use the site as a channel by which to broadcast their opinions. The entire purpose of social media is to connect us, the attention-craving masses, to other human beings like us—which confuses me greatly as to how statements that suggest autonomy of a website (a product of simple code and calculation), like the article headline presented above, are so prevalent in written rhetoric. I’ll believe a social media network can make its own decisions independent of human prompting when I see it grow limbs and sport a glowing red chest à la “I, Robot,” and, as social media lacks physical form outside of digital space, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
For this and other reasons, it was in some ways refreshing to come across a lighthearted but genuinely instructional article from The Washington Post’s T.J. Ortenzi entitled “How to kill someone on Twitter.” The author outlines the step-by-step process necessary in order to create and promote a celebrity’s false death (which the article leads me to believe is some sort of popular pastime or major trolling accomplishment on Twitter). Using the fake news of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s death—a death hoax perpetrated more than once in Twitter’s history. Ortenzi explains that once a channel is established and one takes the effort to make “the account look more legitimate by having followers”—which, as demonstrated by actual Thatcher “killer” handle @OfficialSkyNews (no longer active), can be amassed by either building a following through tweeting real news or by actually buying followers for pennies—a swift spread is ensured as retweets will lead to more retweets, increasing exponentially as the news passes from feed to feed. Ideally, Ortenzi says, “this will become a worldwide trending topic and people will be talking about you for minutes.” Perhaps what makes this practice so popular is that its intended end result, a short period of trending, is only achievable through mass human participation, and success in perpetuating a death hoax on Twitter could be seen as the ultimate banding together of the vast online community.
Why do individuals decide to “kill” celebrities on Twitter? The phenomenon is in fact well explained by Michael Wesch in his video “An anthropological introduction to YouTube.” When attempting to explain the cultural existence of “haters,” those reliable dissenters who frequent the comments section of YouTube and the Internet at large, presented this equation:
(Text is Wesch’s, screen cap is mine.)
By this equation (one that I think greatly enlightens many seemingly inexplicable actions we may observe on the Web), we can directly examine and begin to understand the motivations of those who tweet false deaths. Anonymity (the individual’s news outlet identity) when added to physical distance (in this case, the security of computer or phone as a small, safe portal into cyberspace) and ephemeral dialogue (the grave declaration that Margaret Thatcher has died) do indeed lead to the freedom elaborated by Wesch: through the rapid rise to the successful death-tweeter’s fleeting fame, he/she/ze is immediately party to humanity and its nature to consume and share information. As this information distributes itself (at least to the original poster, who need only wait for retweets), this is truly an experience “without fear or anxiety.”
The beauty of Twitter that Ortenzi’s article elucidates is that Twitter is the ultimate example of Nancy Baym’s clarification of the theory of the “social shaping of technology.” In Baym’s book Personal Connections in the Digital Age, she points out that the “truth” of social media technology comes from a mix of “the social capabilities technological qualities enable—and the unexpected and emergent ways that people make use of these affordances” (pg 44). “How to kill someone on Twitter” is smart to point out both sides of this delicate equation: how Twitter as it is designed has many active users and displays “trending topics” as they are most tweeted, and how it falls to individual people to take advantage of these affordances by creating and perpetuating death myths, thus using Twitter in ways “unexpected and emergent” to the creators of the site’s framework. Ortenzi exposes Twitter for what it really is: a beautiful feedback loop in which technology helps popularize and promote our choice uses of its provided affordances and our usage in turn helps direct future developments of that technology.