Bachir (Chiren) Boumaaz, known as “Athene”, is an online gamer known for his prowess at World of Warcraft and other multiplayer games. His YouTube channel, which describes him as “world’s most famous record-breaking professional gamer” includes hundreds of videos, boasts over 600,000 subscribers and over 300 million video views.
Athene and his friend Reese Leysen have been building a community focused not just on gaming, but on “leading a pro-active lifestyle.” Their postings on ipowerproject.com have turned towards activism, starting with online activism around net neutrality issues, and proceeding to a campaign called OpShareCraft, which is using a live streamcast to promote Athene’s fast to raise money and call attention to issues of food shortage and famine in the Horn of Africa. According to the OpShareCraft homepage, the campaign has raised over $330,000 towards a million dollar goal.
I’d never heard of Athene before I saw this tweet from my friend Xeni Jardin:
Xeni’s tweets were replying to a tweet from Reese Leysen, where he announced that Athene’s livecast would be encouraging viewers to participate in a “tweetbomb” of celebrities and media figures.
Tweetbombs had been discussed on Reese and Athene’s ipowerproject.com site previously. On April 6th, Reese posted this idea:
…we should target huge celebrities who are also gamers and who are clearly very active and responsive on Twitter. Chances we get their attention are much higher because, since this will be mostly coordinated with the AtheneLive audience, we can make clear that we’re gamers trying to stop a massive hunger crisis and save starving children. We can also do celebs who aren’t gamers and tweet at them in a more general not-gamer-oriented way but they absolutely must be very responsive on Twitter (check their timeline, see if they reply to tweets).
Other ideas about how we can make it go bigger are more than welcome as well.
edit: just to be clear, this is about synchronized large-scale tweetbombings that we will coordinate through the livestream, just like we did with the our very influential SOPA/PIPA stunt
Not everyone thought this was a great idea. Responding to Reese’s post, “The Shiznit” offered this observation:
Sorry to be a critic, but I’m not so sure that “bombing” celebrities is such a great idea. This charity drive isn’t the same as the SOPA awareness campaign where you wanted to antagonize the politicians. And celebrities are not the same as kids on a cam-site, either. Rather than feel flattered and amazed by such an action, Tweet-bombing may only piss them off and make them think negatively of you. Just sayin.
I think it’s fair to say that Xeni thought pretty negatively about Reese, Athene and their followers:
And that’s when things got quite ugly. Not only did Xeni receive tweets asking her to promote Athene’s campaign, the received a stream of hateful and abusive tweets.
She posted a screengrab of some of the tweets. Some accused Xeni of selfishness:
Others simply descended to the most popular form of internet abuse, misogyny:
Not all tweets were abusive – some apologized for the bad behavior of other fans of Athene, while others asked her to understand why they were messaging her:
Athene quickly responded, apologizing for the behavior of his followers:
Xeni responded wondering what had just happened, and what it suggests for the future of Twitter:
So… what just happened?
Twitterbombing isn’t a new phenomenon. Urban Dictionary has an entry for “tweet bomb” as early as September 6, 2009: “When one decides to spam one particular tweet to their followers on twitter. Especially when making it a Trending Topic.” “Ask a Ninja”, a YouTube video series, refers to tweetbombing some months earlier, in April 2009, and asks fans of the program to “Twitterbomb these accounts to get them to pay attention to the International Order of Ninjas!”
(There are earlier references to Twitter Bombs, but the usage of the term seems to have shifted. An August 2008 post on Twitter bombs refers to the practice of tweeting using the hashtag favored by a political opponent. And an earlier post suggests that “twitter bomb” should refer to a tweet that unintentionally uses exactly 140 characters.)
The practice of flooding a Twitter user with @messages – messages that will appear in her @Connect stream whether or not she is subscribed to that person’s account – may not be new, but is becoming increasingly popular. Kevin Allison’s podcast “RISK” urged listeners to send tweets to the accounts of arts critics at the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone, demanding that they write reviews of the show. Invisible Children’s KONY2012 campaign urged people who’d seen the video to send tweets to culturally and politically influential individuals, urging them to promote the video. It worked – Oprah, Rihanna and Justin Bieber tweeted about the video to their millions of followers. Yesterday, Invisible Children urged their followers to send messages to Barack Obama and other world leaders via Twitter.
We might think of the tweets to Barack Obama as a form of lobbying – a way of showing a public figure your opinion on a topic. The tweets to Oprah or Justin Bieber are a little different – they’re a request for attention philanthropy. Oprah has over 10 million followers – a tweet from her is a contribution of sorts. When she tweets about KONY2012, some percentage of her followers will watch the video, and some percent will join Invisible Children, buy an action kit or otherwise support the movement.
The theory behind attention philanthropy is simple. Oprah has a great deal of a valuable commodity – attention – and the incremental cost of her spending that attention to call attention to a cause is minimal. In the long run, if she tweets about every campaign her fans want her to promote, she’ll likely start to lose her audience – the incremental cost may be small, but the cumulative cost could be very high.
Oprah – or whatever individual or team maintains her Twitter account – understands this, and acts as a careful curator of these requests for attention. Of course, this is what Oprah does in real-life as well. She understood the value of an appearance on her show, and her Harpo production company received thousands of unsolicited requests to promote stories or causes, and selected only a small subset to receive the gift of Oprah’s attention.
Like Oprah, Xeni Jardin is a media figure – she’s one of the editors of BoingBoing, and she, too, is in the business of curating and amplifying content. But there’s a big difference of scale – roughly 57,000 people follow Xeni on Twitter, versus Oprah’s 10 million. And Xeni uses Twitter quite differently from the ways Oprah uses it. She posts frequently – over 35,000 tweets – and she uses Twitter as a space to discuss personal and sensitive topics.
At the moment, Xeni is going through chemotherapy to treat breast cancer. She frequently uses Twitter to talk about her experiences with chemo and to engage in conversation with others who are fighting cancer. She’s conversing, as well as broadcasting, which means she needs to watch her @connect stream, as that’s how people who want to talk to her request her attention. This means that she may be more vulnerable to a Twitterbomb than Oprah – Oprah likely has a staffer monitoring @connect messages, who might tell her that hundreds of fans have requested she view and amplify the KONY2012 video, while Xeni is reading that stream continuously, engaging in conversations that are suddenly interrupted by a stream of requests for her to donate some attention to Athene’s cause.
We might argue that this is the price of fame on Twitter – gather an audience and you’ll suddenly receive requests to share content with that audience. But it’s a mechanism that affects some Twitter users more than others – it’s harder on people using Twitter to converse than those using it to broadcast. And then there’s a question about “fame” – it’s pretty clear that Oprah is a public figure, who’s going to be asked to share attention. It’s less clear to me that Xeni is a public figure and that people can have the same expectation that they can lobby her for attention.
This doesn’t address the more disturbing aspect of the situation: the vitriolic, sexist and hateful responses Xeni received when she asked – bluntly, confrontationally – people to stop interrupting her conversations with requests for her attention. Some of these are pretty easy to explain – if someone asks you to stop sending messages and you call her a whore, you’re an asshole. There are, alas, lots of assholes on the Internet. Several of the accounts that sent truly hateful messages to Xeni contained only a single post – they’d been created specifically to troll her, perhaps because users didn’t want their friends and followers to see them behaving like assholes on their main accounts.
What’s slightly more complicated is those who responded by justifying their behavior:
Most people don’t like receiving criticism. Most of us really don’t like criticism from people they’ve never met. (I speak from experience – I have a much harder time with critiques of this blog from people I don’t know than from the people I do.) And people really, really don’t like criticism when they were expecting praise for doing something worthwhile.
It’s great that Athene and Reese decided to use their net fame to raise money for a worthy cause. But how they raise awareness and money matters. Tweetbombing isn’t a scaleable tactic – it’s going to force targets of campaigns to start using Twitter in less conversational ways, which will make tweetbombs less effective. (If you’re just using Twitter to broadcast, you simply won’t see a tweetbomb.) And it can clearly blow up in your face – Athene and Reese were forced to apologize and to confront the fact that some of their fans acted like assholes.
Twitterbombing is a tactic that forces us to think about the ethics of attention. We may believe that Reese and Athene are engaged in a deeply important cause – does that mean we’re ethically justified in asking someone else to pay attention? What’s the difference between asking a friend for their attention, and someone you don’t know? A public figure versus a media curator, versus someone who simply has a lot of Twitter followers?
Twitter is a fascinating tool in part because new behaviors evolve through social practice, not through engineering. Hashtags weren’t a feature in the code of Twitter – they were a social feature, added through practice without making changes in code. But not all emergent behaviors are as healthy as others. As Xeni suggested at the end of her “trollstorm”, this is a behavior Twitter may want to take a close look at and decide if this is really how they want their tool to be used.