Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

The tweetbomb and the ethics of attention

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:


@ @ stop spamming me. It’s not cool. Hundreds of spams mentioning my cancer + demanding I help? Not making me want to help.
@xeni
Xeni Jardin


@ @ totally tone-deaf and inappropriate. I really do not appreciate it. So uncool.
@xeni
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.


RT @: Getting ready here on the livestream to do massive media/celeb tweetbombing today http://t.co/LJYsz8sz
@AtheneLOL
ATHENE

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:


Getting tons of SRY U HAZ CANSUR PLZ DON’T DIE XENI PS HELP US END HUNGER IN TEH HORN OF AFRICA! KTHXBYE spam tweets. Fuck all of you, srsly
@xeni
Xeni Jardin

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.


“Burn in Hell, Whore” / “I hope you die of cancer” -> @‘s twitter activism. Could screengrab x10. http://t.co/k8BBUqY1
@xeni
Xeni Jardin

She posted a screengrab of some of the tweets. Some accused Xeni of selfishness:


@ Too bad you’re too self-concerned to help thousands in Africa suffering the worst hunger crisis in 60 years.I hope you die.thanksbai
@ForHumanAdvance
ForHumanAdvancement

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:


@ please understand that there are a lot of kids going along the charity event, be understanding, after all it’s meant for a good cause
@EmmPeePee
Māris

Athene quickly responded, apologizing for the behavior of his followers:


@ sincere apologies for the inappropriate spam, we told our community that we love you and that they could bring this to your attention
@AtheneLOL
ATHENE


@ did not at all expect those types of tweets, as a long-time hardcore supporter of yours and boing boing: deepest apologies
@AtheneLOL
ATHENE


Sad that some trolls tried to sabotage the event and were very offensive to @, nothing but love and support from the Athene crew.
@AtheneLOL
ATHENE

Xeni responded wondering what had just happened, and what it suggests for the future of Twitter:


Strangest griefer/troll storm I’ve ever experienced here. Hope it’s not indicator of Twitter’s future.
@xeni
Xeni Jardin


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:


@All these people sacrifice their free time to raise awarness and do good. If you dont wanna get tweet bombed dont be on Twitter.
@wesir23
Christoph Reitler

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.

24 Responses to “The tweetbomb and the ethics of attention”

  1. Kathy says:

    Hi, Ethan – thanks for this. SPAM is SPAM, whether it’s in email or in your Twitter stream. It’s wrong and it’s rude.

    I’m fascinated that people seem to have set up Twitter accounts just for harassment. I’ve been harassed on Facebook during memes (think Cook’s Magazine). It had not occurred to me that the clearly fake FB accounts might have been created in order to practice a form of digital graffiti.

    Living in the midst of disruption is interesting.

  2. Alex says:

    Interesting article. Athene misjudged some of the targets no doubt. I can’t help thinking Xeni overeacted somewhat. From tweet deck I could see the “spam” she got initially. 70 perhaps 80s tweets requesting her help reasonably politely, if the grammar was bad it was because the audience is young or european. She was free to ignore whole incident with only minor disruption to her feed.

  3. Great post. My reactions are mixed between interest in the phenomenon & dismay that @xeni had to deal with that.

  4. Naomi Most says:

    Mr. Blame the Victim (“if you dont wanna get tweet bombed dont be on twitter”) has exactly one tweet to his name, appears to have literally been born yesterday.

    Crypto-anonymous voices created for the sole purpose of magnifying others. Creepy.

  5. Best says:

    Very cool and interesting article! Keep up the good work! (I’m watching the lifestream and also saw the sh*tstorm yesterday)

  6. Josh says:

    You do realize the host of the Charity fund were tweet bombing NICE things to these people to raise awareness. Its just a hate group that have formed together to try make this charity fail. Most tweeters were very kind and respectful its just a shame some people are complete ass holes.

    Haters gon hate, if you can’t take that then gtfo the internet.

  7. Alex Leavitt says:

    I wrote an article a while back about video bombing, where a pro-gay-rights campaign had videos removed from YouTube, so they asked fans to reupload the video as many times as possible on their respective accounts. Interesting case studies to interpret “good” versus “bad” participatory practices in mediated public spheres: http://doalchemy.org/2010/10/a-new-perspective-on-viral-videos-fckh8/

  8. Waqas says:

    Hi

    I just read your article and I was actually watching Athenes live show when the incident happened. It was NOT Athenes fans who were involved in the abusive comments towards Xeni. Infact they were seperate to Athenes community. Thought I would point that out since you said “Athene and Reese were forced to apologize and to confront the fact that some of their fans acted like assholes” The people who said those things to Xeni are “Trolls” They were obviously not apart of the community. Athenes community was showering her with positive messages and of course trying to raise awareness for their cause.

  9. Noel Dickover says:

    Wagas, I think one of the downsides of taking something “viral” is your community grows – it no longer maintains the norms developed through organic growth. Its fair to say that the Xeni “Trolls” in essence became new members of the Athenes community, and by doing so, the Athenes community interaction and reputation on the internet shifted. So while long time mebers of the Athenes community were showering her with positive SPAM, the newer members were doing something very different.

  10. SamLR says:

    Waqas, that’s the ‘no true scotsman’ fallacy. These people were acting as members of Athene’s community and are therefore de facto part of it. This is one of the interesting aspects of the internet in general in that it’s created a medium in which communities are forced to police themselves a lot more. Any arsehole can self identify as a member of your community so as a community you have to call them on it.

    Alex, I think a the problem wasn’t so much the politness of the tweets it was the fact that there were 70 or 80 of them. Imagine if a whilst walking along the road 3 or 4 people suddenly converged on you asking for donations, it doesn’t matter how polite they are it’s going to feel threatening and like a mob.

    Another point to note is that many people don’t like being coerced into things. The sudden appearance of many similar messages, especially in a public forum, will make people feel like that they don’t have a choice in doing something (i.e. peer pressure). Lots of people don’t react well to peer pressure..

  11. Just some fuck head says:

    Twitter needs better dupe/flood checking. Since it doesn’t go ahead an abuse it until they do.

  12. Roger Strong says:

    In 2010 the little-known rock band Imperial Stars turned a truck sideways to block the 101 Freeway in Hollywood, and played music on its roof to the blocked motorists. The band claimed that the “viral marketing” stunt was done not so much for publicity for the band but in an effort to raise awareness to child homelessness. The top of the truck read, ‘Over 1.5 million homeless children in the USA. What are we doing?’

    Their stunt did not end well, and certainly did not get them any support from anyone trapped in their traffic jam. Nor did it get them anything but contempt from the rest of the world.

    There’s a difference between putting up a sign on the side of the road to promote your cause, and blocking traffic by putting your sign in the middle of the road. Athene and Reese did the latter.

  13. Dan L. says:

    “You do realize the host of the Charity fund were tweet bombing NICE things to these people to raise awareness. Its just a hate group that have formed together to try make this charity fail. Most tweeters were very kind and respectful its just a shame some people are complete ass holes.

    Haters gon hate, if you can’t take that then gtfo the internet.”

    Spam is spam is spam. Doesn’t matter how nice or heartfelt it is. It’s like the “Save the Children” and Red Cross people who hang out on street corners with clipboards. They’re usually pretty polite and they’re doing it for a good cause. But I still think it’s kinda flippin’ annoying of them to jump and wave and get in my way, try to get my attention, try to get me to talk to them when I’m already in the process of thinking of something else. Usually something work related so that these people are actually COSTING ME MONEY with these tactics.

    Make all the excuses you want, this sort of thing is rude. If you have a problem with that you can gtfo the internet, amirite?

  14. Otto says:

    Josh: “Its just a hate group that have formed together to try make this charity fail.”

    That’s exactly what I expected. There’s a term for this sort of attack – where you do something wrong (eg spam) in the name of the person you want to attack. Seemed like it was too easy to trace the attack back to Athene.

    I don’t agree with the cavalier “Haters gona hate…” line though.

  15. Andy Carvin says:

    So glad you wrote this, Ethan. While my experiences with tweetbombing pale in comparison to Xeni’s, I’ve noticed a definite uptick in them as of late. On several occasions it’s happened because some activist in a given Mideast/North African country puts me on a list of Twitter contacts in the press, and other activists use the list to twitterbomb those contacts, with no knowledge of whether or not those people are already covering their cause. On a few occasions I’ve been tweetbombed by Syrian and Bahraini activists demanding I cover their plight despite the fact I’ve been doing so for well over a year now. If I push back, even politely, I find myself getting yelled at by some of them. It then quickly devolves as people start accusing me of supporting the regime or US policy or whatever, as other activists who know my work then join the fray and start asking people to stop bothering me. It ends up creating a real mess in my twitter timeline, which I see as my workspace. So ironically, whenever these tweetbombs happen against me, they end up causing the opposite of their intention and distracting me from covering the stories as I would’ve done anyway.

  16. EH says:

    Wagas: So what you’re saying is that if it was a negative Tweet, then it wasn’t an Athenes fan?

  17. “@-spam” and Xeni’s frustration is evidence that “the best filter for serendipity is smallness.” Twitter has simply gotten too big.

    http://reagle.org/joseph/blog/social/community/twitter-bomb-small-serendipity

  18. I’m pretty sure Xeni* qualifies as a public figure.

    That said, I’d find it creepy if I were having health problems and someone started from out of nowhere trying to influence me by leading with unrequested manufactured sympathy.

    *who linked to me from Boing Boing on my old blog, which brought me my Best Day Ever, so SRY U HAZ CANSUR, Xeni

  19. eszter says:

    A very helpful write-up, Ethan, thanks.

  20. Mart says:

    “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.”

    The signal to noise ratio on Twitter is still very good and we have block buttons etc. Freedom of expression has to apply equally to our opponents (like Voltaire said) and I don’t think Twitter needs to intervene with new rules to stop cases like this. Xeni is an amazing woman and I sure hope her skin is thick enough to disregard the idiots.

  21. Totally agree with Joseph Reagle’s point on size. Twitter has become less and less interesting to me, even though I follow good people. Conversely, although I only follow a tiny number of blogs on Tumblr, the quality of the posts are off the scale. Every visit to “Dashboard” is a treat.

    Now I know this is apple v orange in terms of functionality, but as twitter becomes more a messaging tool and less of a communications medium, its charm diminishes.

    It’s easy to disengage when the quality of engagment diminishes.

  22. Adam Gurri says:

    “The signal to noise ratio on Twitter is still very good and we have block buttons etc.”

    Block buttons do not scale.

  23. jing says:

    Hi ethan, i really like how you used this incident to reinforce your formulation of the `ethics of attention’ and ‘attention philanthropy.’ I believe you talked about this concept in a different context in your other blogs. Anonymous hate mails are admissions of guilt.

  24. 1) As you present it above, it appears that Xeni was the first to fire off “fuck off…”. If that was the case: once you start with that, you can’t really complain about anything else.

    2) A robust system would allow for users to create effective filters. What you’re really pointing out, is that Twtter is an ineffective tool — something that’s unlikely to change given its “corporate” nature. But don’t blame people for the effects of bad tool design.
    That’s a lesson, then, primarily in pragmatics, not ethics.

    3) Writing from Mexico City tonight, in the middle of a Presidential campaign that is deeply inflected by the history of colonialism, there is something deeply offensive and self-aggrandizing in the assertion that “attention” as defined above, matters. It is, in its essence, a neo-colonial discourse: we’re better than you, our ideas are better than yours, you should be beholden to our… attention.

    4) Returning to ethics, I find the idea that I should determine my own attention, deeply unethical.
    That said, managing information overload in a era of expanding knowledge technologies, is largely a difficult task– presumably, we don’t want 10,000 or more threads of conversation struggling for our attention and distracting us from “tasks at hand.” In the case of the reporter above, we’d like to have effective ways to tell those who don’t know, “hey, I’m already attentive.”
    Unfortunatley, most-pop use tools today (start with Facebook, Twitter) are market/commerce/profit driven, and are seeking to maximize gains at the lowest costs, eg, lowest common denominator. They don’t wish to be great tools, probably not good tools, only popular tools–
    Oh, then, for the days when the government ran the internet!

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