Block lists are no substitute for moderation: Twitter sucks

Previously, I posted that you should be ready to have a block list. This is 100% true. Go do that now.

Ok, a block list can ameliorate the worst excesses of hate mobs and you should have one, but it’s not a silver bullet.

Ok, first let me start off with a confession: I used extremely intemperate language when tweeting at a corporate account. I regret this action. Further context will be forthcoming in a later post. Regrettably, my intemperate post was screen capped:

That’s the tweet that set off several hours of fun as people dropped by to call me names back. You can see that it was liked 430 times and retweeted 279 times.

To stem the flow of abuse, the most obvious actions would be to block all of the people who ‘liked’ it, all of the people who retweeted it, and, to really stem the tide, all the followers of the people who retweeted it – as these are the people who will see it and come be mean to me.

If only it were so simple.

I’m sorry, Dave. I can’t let you do that.

This list of people to block is literally thousands of people. The only way to do it is via a script. However, there are problems:

API – Likers

The Twitter API does not give me access to the likers. I can get a few of the most recent ones via the the website, but none in an automated script.

API – Retweeters

I can only get the 100 most recent retweeters.

API – Speed

The Twitter API lets me do around 180 things in an hour. I wrote a script to block all the retweeters and their followers. It’s been running more than 24 hours. It’s not even a quarter of the way through.

Block Limit

I just exported my block list from Twitter and it’s at 25000 people. I exported it again bit later after more blocking and it was still at 25000 people. Block together also shows that’s how many people I’ve got blocked. Which would appear to mean that my old blocks are quietly disappearing as I add new ones. Checking back on some of my most alarming early blocks, I can see this is not the case. However, the export limit means that I can’t share a complete block list with the other person targeted.

You Can’t Block Everyone

Milo, a major instigator of harassment, has 154K followers. A few days ago, he tweeted this:

His followers will understand this to be a call to action.

As it happens, the account @BlockAllTwerps is running a script, blocking everyone who tweeted or retweeted that post and their followers.

It will tweet again when it’s done. Which will probably be in a few weeks. And, apparently, the block list will be impossible to export.

Milo can reach over a hundred thousand people instantly, but blocking by discovering relationships is rate limited and blocking by sharing lists is capped.

This Sucks

There are a lot of things Twitter could try to sort out their abuse problem, but this is what they picked. Blocking is a terrible model. The most glaring problem being that it puts the onus on the person being harassed. The technical issues just highlight the failure of the model.

Blocking on Twitter – a guide for normal users

Stop! Before you scroll past thinking, ‘this doesn’t effect me.’ It doesn’t until it does. A friend of mine recently had a a mob descend for tweeting ‘wow’ at me. Read on:

Last Friday, I was minding my own business participating in a wee bit of a twitter pile-on, which may or may not be ironic. Anyway, I’ll cover this more in a later post, but a few important things happened.

Somebody with a LOT of followers retweeted me, due to agreement. Then somebody, who has an influential follower, screen capped my tweet, adding some negative commentary. And then the influential follower, who directs large hordes of angry twitter mobs, retweeted that.

Hordes of twitter mobs, in this instance, meant, according to Twitter’s metrics, about 35k people. Some of them were people who came by to ‘like’ my comment, who saw it because of the prominent approval. Much more noticeable were the people who came by to complain.

Also caught in the crossfire was a friend of mine from Real Life who replied to my tweet with ‘wow’. Her reply got caught in the screen grab, entirely incidentally. My twitter presence is vaguely gender ambiguous, but hers is not. Women are fair targets to online mobs (as far as the mobs are concerned). So even if you don’t tweet any political statements and just reply to a friend, you can still get drowned in a mob.

What to do when it happens to you

Be prepared

If you use Twitter like I did until friday, you’ve got a few spam accounts blocked, but your block list is mostly unused. You have, perhaps, given no thought to block management. If a mob notices you, however, your approach to this may change.

There exists an app called Block Together. It is really useful because it allows users to share block lists. You can get a list of people with a history of mobbing and block them.

The only downside of this app is that it takes a few hours between joining it and it working. Ergo, join now. Perhaps mobs will never notice you. The app will quietly do nothing, aside from remembering the spammers you occasionally block. But if you need it, it will be ready to go.

When you’re noticed by a mob

Others, smarter and more experienced than me have written more about this. This is what I did for a one-off attack.

  1. Sign up for Block Together
  2. Subscribe a list that contains the kind of people who are attacking you. If you see a lot of people describing themselves either as Nazis, as ‘egalitarians’ or as ‘Gamers’, Wil Wheaton’s list is a good pick.
  3. While the event is ongoing add this block list. Remove it when the coast is clear. It blocks too many people for regular use, but is a good emergency measure.

The dispassionate response, of course, is to set your notifications only to people you know and to shut the computer and go have a cup of tea and read a nice book. This is the approach I’ve taken when a small number of people show up to complain, but a large number is so overwhelming that this reaction does not sem reasonable wile the event is ongoing.

You could decide to take your account private until things blow over. The advantage of this is that haters cannot reply to the tweet they don’t like. The disadvantage is that they will still tweet at you. People who have experience launching campaigns against individuals don’t reweet you. They tweet a picture of your tweet. That screen grab means that mobs can still see who you are and why they should be enraged at you. The other disadvantage in going private is that this does silence you, even if only temporarily. They will see it as a victory.

Responding to hate tweets

Do not reply. The minimised logic is that this is ‘feeding the trolls’ – they enjoy the attention. This is partially true, but it’s the more minor concern. Some of the trolls will respond to your attention by becoming extremely alarming or dangerous in Real Life. If only 1% of a hate mob are people who are going to actually make you worried for your safety, in 35k people, that’s 350 scary people. Perhaps one of them lives in your city? Don’t accidentally feed that troll. Just block everyone involved in the hate-tweet:

  1. Expand the tweet to find out who liked it. Block all the likers.
  2. Block everyone who retweeted it.
  3. Report the tweet if it’s vile enough that Twitter support may care.
  4. Block the person who tweeted it in the first place

And, in between taking these actions, keep your mentions on people you follow only and have some tea.

It is actually impossible to respond to things via blocking in real time, so do take a step back and block at your leisure. This isn’t your fault.


Sign up for Block Together now, so it can jump to your aid rapidly.

A boot stamping into a human face forever.

So I logged into twitter and saw this:

Allow me to provide more context than anyone wants about the latest trans vs terf twitter storm.
The weekend, the Observer published a letter, where terfs complained that universities no longer invite them to speak. One section of it complained that Julie Bindel is no longer given a university platform to advocate for conversion therapy for trans people. She is forced to constrain her remarks to national newspapers, instead of taking her case directly to trans young people.
If the phrase, ‘conversion therapy’ seems familiar, that’s because it came up in Leelah Alcorn‘s suicide. Conversion therapy doesn’t turn trans people cis any more than it could make a person gay or straight or left-handed or blonde. It wouldn’t have any effect at all, if it weren’t devastating for people. Leelah specifically cited it in her suicide note. Terfs such as Bindel think it should be absolutely the only option for trans people. Alas, given her national platform, she has advocated this as public policy and nearly scuppered the law that gives legal recognition to trans people in the UK. This is not a harmless disagreement or just an ideological row. Terfs have been much more effective at causing material harm to large numbers of trans people than right wing Christians have been. Normally, this is framed as a long running any annoying internet argument between trans women and some feminists, but in fact, it was because of successful organising by terfs that, until recently, all trans people in the US had to pay out of pocket for trans-related medical care. They got it removed from medicaid, which had the knock-on effect of also dropping it from private insurance. Bindel has campaigned for this to also be the case in the UK. In response, the NUS has a policy of not inviting her to speak at student unions (so-called ‘no-platforming’). She describes this as a McCarthy-esque limitation of freedom of speech – to not be given a university platform to advocate for something that would surely mean the deaths of many trans people. (Bindel says she doesn’t want trans people to die, but not all Terfs agree.)
So the letter in the Observer says it’s undemocratic not to give a platform for a relatively privileged group of people to call for harm of less privileged people. Peter Tachell, an often heroic campaigner for LGBT-rights, is a free speech fundamentalist and signed the letter. Possibly he was not entirely aware of the context. Or maybe he is – I seem to him recall him defending hate speech that was directed at him personally. Nonetheless, I think it’s a stretch to say that demanding an apology from a political candidate who questions whether or not trans people should have the right to access public toilets (Rupert Reed) is an attack on his free speech. Indeed, normally free speech involves a lot of back and forth and often this includes asking politicians to apologise. (Which he did and the Green party has reaffirmed that their platform is welcoming to trans people, so I would tend to see this as having had a positive outcome.) Indeed, I think the entire letter is disingenuous and I’m disappointed to see Tatchell signed it.
As I said in an earlier blog post, I tweeted at him about it, as did loads of other people. For the record, I’m sorry for being part of such a huge mass of people and for the snarky tone that I took. I’ve been the topic of a much smaller twitter pile-on and did not enjoy it. Some of the posts directed at him were much more hostile than mine. The included image above contains a tweet which reads: ‘I’d like to tweet about your murder you fucking parasite’
While this stops short of an actual death threat, it does cross a line. I’m not going to condemn or excuse the person who sent it (nor is it my intent to condescend to them like the concerned person who photographed the tweet). I will say that a lot of trans people are vulnerable. Many come from homes that do not support us. If we run into financial difficulty, poorly-thought-out ‘protections’ of our privacy can make it extremely difficult to access benefits. Many trans people experience tremendous amounts of transphobia from the family, their community and their work environment. A very large percentage of trans women lose their jobs on coming out and many of them face systemic discrimination which makes it difficult to get a new job. I’m sharing this not to assign any angry a tweeter a mantle of victimhood, just to note that some trans people are very badly stressed by circumstances that are not their fault and are due to them being trans. Many are not, but most trans people have dealt with very serious transphobia for at least part of their lives.
Meanwhile, Peter Tachell, for whom I have quite a lot of respect, has managed to make a career as a campaigner. He has a foundation. He can work full time at addressing injustices, including ones that don’t effect him personally. He has taken on trans rights recently because he thinks its the right thing to do. I see this as noble and note that his LGB campaigning has caused him quite a lot of personal hardship and even physical injury. However, his support for trans rights is somewhat undermined by his signing of this letter. He has a strong identity as a champion of trans rights and some of the funds that he collects to support his work are from trans people and allies who want to help him work on this cause. If he is getting identity and funds based on work for other people, but then suddenly sides with those who want us to die, you can see where the term ‘parasite’ might come from. And indeed, how a stressed person in a vulnerable community could easily get angry enough to tweet that.
But who is this person who is so concerned about the orignal tweeter that they chose to photograph the tweet? Indeed, before we get to that: posting images to things like twitter is not only a huge waste of bandwidth, but is a major accessibility problem for people who rely on screen readers, such as blind people. If you’re going to use a screen cap, please provide a transcript. If that’s too long for twitter, you’re on the wrong platform!
The photographer, Beatrix Campbell is, of course, the person who wrote the letter in the Observer, complaining that universities don’t like to issue paid speaking invitations to those who actively wish harm to some of their less empowered students. She also is, unsurprisingly, a terf, who has previously written about Julie Bindel being no-platformed. How does she describe her ideological foes who don’t want their student fees to go towards people who would deny them medical treatment? ‘Transgender people who used to live as men and now live as women’, she wrote, also in the Guardian. (For people claiming to be silenced, they do seem to get rather a lot of space in influential national newspapers.) It should be very clear that this formulation is calling trans women’s womanhood into question. She complains in the column that she doesn’t like being called a transphobe. I think there might be an easy solution for that, which is to stop using formulations like that one. Indeed, this formulation would deeply problematic if applied to trans women in their 30’s, 40’s and so on. But as most undergraduates do tend to be young, it’s especially disingenuous. Somebody who has come out in their teens or early 20’s to start living as a woman probably has not actually lived ‘as a man’ in any meaningful sense or for any length of time. Which is neither here nor there, as you don’t need to have lived as any gender to be against giving paid speaking engagements to somebody who wants to deny you needed medical care!
So Ms Campbell, who wants to gently remind everyone that trans people are not always and forever their own gender, is very deeply concerned about the well-being of this angry tweeter. Not so concerned that she wouldn’t try to keep her out of ‘women only spaces’, like public toilets, or to reach out to her directly, but I’m sure her concern is entirely sincere. She’s also very concerned for her new bestie, Peter Tatchell, who was the target of this wish for death. Peter was touched enough by all this concern that he re-tweeted it.
Meanwhile, Tatchell is fairly angry about all the abuse he’s getting and is posting inadvisably to Twitter about all the very hard work he’s done for trans people (which is true, he has done) and how under appreciated he feels (this is the less advisable part) and why can’t we be nicer to our allies even when they collaborate with people who are out to harm us?
And… that’s it.
This is twitter. Twitter is hurt, angry people lashing out. People with OBEs and national newspaper columns whining about being silenced. People who should know better crying they aren’t beloved enough and should be allowed to speak over those for whom they’re meant to be working for and how their free speech is violated when they can’t.
Everyone is angry. Everyone is hurt. Everyone feels like they’re right. Everyone feels like their feelings are the most important thing going on here. Everybody is lashing out. And this is today on twitter. And yesterday on twitter. And tomorrow on twitter. And every day on twitter. I just can’t take it any more. I’m done.
What twitter is good for: if a corporation does something stupid and embarrassing, you can force them to apologise and stop doing the thing that was probably not making them any money anyway.
What twitter is good for: multiplying anger and hurt feelings until they risk turning into a black hole of awful.
What twitter is shit at: changing anyone’s mind about anything, getting corporations to stop doing things that are unethical but profitable, getting people to behave better, being a thing I want to spend any more time with.
I’ll be on Diaspora, where we can have longer posts, longer comments, visible threads and hopefully a lot more light and a lot less heat.
And I’ll be at my local. Talking to people I know, to their face, taking a walk when I feel really angry and trying to avoid being murderously angry or petulant as fuck.

The Problem with Twitter

These last few days, I’ve run into Twitter storms twice. Once was reported on in a New York Times article, How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life. This was a followup on what happened to the woman who tweeted a crass AIDS joke about Africa. I remember the tweet when it happened and the sense of outrage at her apparent racism. What was she thinking?

I don’t remember if I tweeted about it at the time, but I probably did. And today, I tweeted annoyance at Peter Tatchell. Along with 2000 people. To be fair, Tatchell is often a bit annoying. He’s also extremely consistent and has campaigned tirelessly for years. I don’t agree with all of his positions, but he applies them absolutely evenly, treating homophobes exactly the same no matter where they’re from or what the cost to himself personally. He may be wrong some of the time, but he’ also extremely principled.

Sarah Brown and Natacha Kennedy do a good job explaining what the issue is, but let’s leave that aside and talk about twitter. That I happen to agree with the points raised by the 2000 tweeters (or rather, me and 1999 others) is almost beside the point. I entirely disagree with GamerGate and while many or most of those guys just want to intimidate and harass, at least some of them just want to talk about what they find annoying or personally oppressive.

For whatever reason, Twitter seems to lend itself to outrage. There are several possible reasons. The Twitter company has been extremely poor at dealing with trolls, which may have encouraged a certain institutional culture, but I think that’s not it, as the Twitter pile-on effect seems to be non-ideological. I suspect there are two major reasons. One is the brevity required and the other is the extremely poor threading.

Yesterday was my birthday and I have not actually deleted my facebook account. So I logged in to look at an event and found around a hundred messages posted to my timeline. I thought I could take advantage of people cruising by to better advertise the event, but this didn’t work at all. Because people didn’t actually look at my profile. They saw a notification, a chance to leave a very short message and they did so. Along with everyone I’ve ever met. That kind of UI decision distances people from the milieu in which they are operating. They never saw the other messages, including my own post inviting them to a concert. Similarly, I had no idea that I had joined thousands of other people when I was snarky about ‘freeze peach’ at Tatchell. What’s more, the brevity of the medium forced me to distil my snark down from a much longer thought about how he is really consistent about free speech, even if I think sometimes misguided, and how given the context in which he began his activism, this view might make more sense.

Whether or not twitter is actually more prone to pile-ons is something that seems deserving of more research. Could this happen with tumblr, or does the (terrible, but still less bad) threading help put things within a context? Does the longer format help? I’ve seen trolls on Diaspora, especially repugnant MRAs lurking on the feminism tag, so it may be that pile-ons are cross-platform and not a side effect of brevity. However, Diaspora MRAs are certainly aware of their attempts to shout down all feminist discourse and are not stumbling blindly into it the way I think many twitter users seem to do so.

Accounts like @YesYoureRacist exist to point out that casual racism is still very prevalent online. With more than 59000 followers, though, it’s clear that when I make a reply to a racist tweet he’s highlighted, I’m hardly alone. Indeed, I sometimes get ‘likes’ on my replies even weeks later. And these likes bring up a performative aspect mentioned in the times article. I might not realise exactly how many people are tweeting along side me, but I am definitely tweeting publicly. Each of which might reach a few more people, in widening concentric circles of outrage. Each of which is devoid of knowledge of other circles, making it seem like each of us is one of only a few voices crying out in the wilderness, to the acclaim of few, but still to acclaim.

The times article also talks of this direct, public reach of people seeming democratising. But instead it easily becomes mob-like, for a strange sort of mob that may be largely unaware of each other. It is a neoliberal simulacrum of democracy, in which we all think we have something special and unique to say back to whatever has provoked reaction. It’s as if each of us is at the centre of our own little protests. But in fact, we are an avalanche of (often interchangeable) opinion falling upon another unfortunate individual. Worse than not actually being democratic in any meaningful sense, it feels like a way to be heard. It seems like action has been taken, when in fact, one poor sap has been made an example of. It takes each of us less than a minute each to say something snarky, outraged or mean to whatever has come up that day, and then we can move on. If this is a company or a brand and the problem is not complex, this really can be effective at solving the issue. If some shop has stocked a racist children’s toy, for example, the outpouring of thousands of angry tweets will quickly cause an apology. But most of us are not companies.

I probably say at least a dozen idiotic things per day. And since I was raised in a deeply prejudiced culture, some of those things are occasionally fairly awful. In the old days, I was sometimes met with stony silence, realised my error, apologised and tried not to do it again. Call-outs made me a better person. But these days, I’m more socially isolated, tend to spend most days working alone and post my random thoughts to Twitter. I have not yet caused a storm of outrage, although I have said dumb things to some activists who very nicely took the time to point out that I should stop – something they did not have to do and which I appreciate. Their followers did not chime in. One day, though, maybe I’ll try to be funny in too little space, or say something sarcastic that gets stripped of context. Nobody is right all the time, and when it’s my turn to be wrong, how many people will speak up? How many will see it? I once played in a concert in front of other music students and every single person in the audience separately and quietly pointed out my one wrong note.

I don’t want to be the kind of person who blindly joins a mob. I don’t want to cause people to lose their jobs. I’m not even sure I want to always be so brief with expressing my thoughts. I used to complain about political soundbites on the news and now my own words, as if I’m trying to be some kind of celebrity, are often similarly abbreviated. Finally, the near-constant outrage, even when I’m entirely in agreement, is really tiring. How many of us really have anything to say that’s meaningful in that format? We might all have aspirations of being Jenny Holzer, but even she provokes in a way that can’t be responded to so briefly.

I’m not quitting Twitter, but I’m re-evaluating it’s usefulness, especially as a political tool. Although a rather offensive twitter advert claimed that #Ferguson happened there, it really did not. Our engagement with online mediums from our living room is really not being on the street. And, again, this simulation of democracy is ultimately disempowering. Nor was Twitter really any kind of serious force in the Arab Spring. Twitter is ultimately just another for-profit social network, selling our relationships, thoughts and even outrage back to us for a profit.

Trying out Samaritans Radar

I’ve (temporarily) signed up for the Samaritans Radar app. I thought this would be a smartphone app, but it’s not. It’s a little twitter app that reads posts looking for keywords and sends an email if it sees anything it thinks might be alarming.
I’ve got two notifications so far. The first one comes from a tweet from before I added the app:

Oh, irony is not dead.
The other notification was for this tweet:

It sent me an email about 20 minutes after that was first posted, which is a bit late for a ‘I’m going to kill myself … right now’, but possibly ok for people building up more slowly. (A later notification for a different tweet arrived after only 7 minutes.) Gmail autofiltered the email to my Updates tab, which means it did not generate an alert on my phone. All of the updates I got have been in a single thread, so I could move it to the primary inbox if I were concerned.
The email told me:

Dear @celesteh,

Radar has spotted a tweet from someone you follow who may be going through a tough time.

Read the tweet here and find out how you can offer support.

View Tweet Now

If you need more information on how to help your friend or if you need some support yourself, please visit

Clicking through on the ‘View tweet now’ takes me to a web page.

My Radar

Hi @celesteh
This is the tweet that Radar has spotted

Are you worried about this Tweet?
[yes] [no]

Clicking yes gets a small pop up window overlaying the tweet in question:

What to do:

You’ve indicated that the tweet might be worrying. Here are some tips on what to do next:

  • Have a look at their tweets, is this a one off? Out of character? Has it been going on for long?
  • Try sending them a tweet (or perhaps a DM, Email, Text?) gently asking how they’re doing.
  • Could a mutual friend have the same worries and help approach them together?

You might want to try and meet up with your friend, or arrange a time to chat on the phone?

  • Offer Samaritans contact details and suggest they call if they want to speak to someone anonymously : 08457 90 90 90
  • For more information and help with knowing what to say visit

And that’s it. None of the pages had any queries or information relating to the nature of different relationships I might have with the potentially troubled tweeter. For example, if I got a tweet like that about an underling that I line-manage or have power over at work, that is not addressed. Nor is any mention made of the equalities act.
This tool does not give me access to any information I did not already have access to. It only shows me tweets already visible in my timeline. Therefore, concerns that it could out somebody as trans or LGB do seem misplaced, as it only shows me what people have already decided I should be able to see. I don’t know, but I suspect it will also work with protected tweets, so it will send me alerts about tweets that aren’t public, but, again, the person decided I could already see them. (This does raise larger concerns about how twitter apps run by big data companies are a way of circumventing privacy controls set by individual users.)
Again, this app draws my attention to tweets that would have been in my timeline anyway, but that I may have missed because of the massive volume of tweets that go by, or I may have scrolled past it without noticing. I can see why the Samaritans were surprised by people getting upset about privacy concerns, as this is much less invasive than is all of facebook or a lot of other twitter-based data gathering.

Previously on this topic: Posting to the Internet

Posting to the internet

I’m seeing a lot of people upset over an app made by the Samaritans. This is a twitter app that listens for some keywords and phrases that might indicate if one of your contacts is having a hard time. If they are, it gives you some nudges to reach out to offer them some support. This is obviously well-intentioned, but many are concerned about potential misuse, for example, by employers who want to discriminate against people, or bullies.
I would think the vast majority of people installing an app like this have good intentions. If your manager sees that you’re having a rough time via this app, well, they’re already following you on twitter and could very easily stumble across your unhappy posts by accident. Having this app indicates that they at least like the idea of supporting people, but, yeah, they could very well make poor decisions about what to do with a struggling underling. It’s not clear whether this app makes that any more likely. It does call attention to possibly unhappy tweets by the employee, but hopefully a well-intentioned manager is aware of the Equalities Act (and hopefully this scenario occurred to the programmers, in the user interaction between the app and the concerned person).
The bully argument is a bit more troubling, as, alas, it’s all too easy to imagine someone installing this just to keep tabs on varied target lists. This linked post is concerned about transphobic abuse, which is all too common, but its also easy to imagine this being exploited by GamerGate. In the hands of sociopath, this use is, indeed, troubling. However, it is merely automatic a task that they’re possibly already doing manually.
I think people’s major concern is the inherent creepiness of a piece of software following you and attempting to diagnose your mood and mental health problems via your public posts. This concern is not misplaced, but the targeting the Samaritans probably is. The truth is, untold numbers of apps do this already. We don’t know how many, because they’re under no obligation to tell us. Twitter makes available via their API a raw stream of everything posted to twitter. Every single post in real time. You or I cannot make use of so many tweets blasting out at us, but Big Data can.
Right now, there are programs running, looking at twitter, scanning every single tweet. They are looking for patterns. Some of this is completely benign. In the relatively recent earthquake in Napa, California, analysts were able to use tweet times and geolocation to figure out where the quake was big enough to wake people up. A lot of people, after making sure they were safe, reached for their smart devices and tweeted they’d felt the earthquake. Researchers were able to make a very nifty map, showing where it woke up the most people to where it seemed to waken virtually no one. That’s nifty, right? But it does require doing a lot of looking at where people are and whether they would normally be tweeting at that time of night. It’s not an invasion of privacy, because it’s public and maybe it doesn’t seem squeamish at all, but this is an unusual example.
Many twitter applications are looking for mentions of brands and what emotive words are used next to them. Many years ago, I tried to get a job blogging for a brand and they mailed me in the information pack every single public live journal post that mentioned their brand. All of them were public, but many of them were kind of embarrassingly personal. The authors never imagined them being disseminated to corporate types. This same thing still goes on, but a much more massive scale.
And its not unheard of to try to trace individuals. Target’s datamining certainly includes twitter.
We’re fine with giant corporations, security agencies and, yes, our bosses knowing everything we tweet. How do I know we’re fine with it? We all use twitter and nobody objects. Until some well-meaning do-gooder tries to make an accessible, helpful version of this.
Twitter’s entire business model relies on sharing this kind of information. This is not a case where they could be reformed into better behaviour. If you don’t want to be mined and you don’t want to tweet anonymously, consider using a privacy aware service to make posts like this – one that will share your tweets only with the people you say you want them shared with. So if you’re having a really really rubbish day and post, ‘I feel so down today, I’m at a loss and just don’t know how long I can carry on’ it will be seen by the people you want it to be seen by and not everyone on the entire internet and not a corporation out to sell your moods and data to anyone who will buy it.
If you want privacy control for posts, use Disapora for them. If you want the world and everyone to know what you’re thinking, use Twitter. There are times were it makes sense to use either. But even if this app gets withdrawn with muttered apologies, don’t assume you know who is reading your tweets. They’re public and anybody could be – and certainly is – gathering them.

Twitter arguments – Updated

The other day, I got flamed on Twitter. I’ve reproduced the exchange here for your reading pleasure:

celesteh: So, um, Clint Eastwood yelled at a chair? Makes as much sense as anything else the GOP does, I guess.
shellymic: @celesteh It’s understandable that all of the concepts would be over your head. Better luck next time.
celesteh: @shellymic Oh, was it conceptual art? I should have read the programme notes!
shellymic: @celesteh That doesn’t even make sense…please stop trying, though. It’s ok.
celesteh: @shellymic Ah, I’ll slow down. See, there is more to art than paintings by Thomas Kinkaide. Sometimes people like to do surrealist theatre.
celesteh: @shellymic Ah nevermind. Even with the free time of recovering from surgery, pointless argument w strangers are too boring. You have fun tho
_markjrussel: @shellymic @celesteh no sense arguing with a liberal. They are not smart enough to understand much.
celesteh: @_markjrussell @shellymic I shall alert my university that my recent degree was granted in error.
celesteh: @_markjrussell @shellymic But seriously, why seek out and insult strangers on the internet? Doesn’t it get rather dull?
celesteh: @_markjrussell @shellymic Actually, I poked through your twitter feeds (too much free time, recovering from surgery) and discovered that …
celesteh: @_markjrussell @shellymic neither of you makes a habit of insulting strangers. I’m kind of curious what’s caused you to do so with me?

Sadly, I have received no reply thus far. _markjrussel has since locked his twitter feed.
My question was in earnest, though. When I got the first flame message, I thought that she must have just searched twitter for ‘GOP’ or ‘Eastwood’ and flamed indiscriminately. I thought this must be a politics of bullying. If you can find people who are personal tweeters who are not generally political and pile a few flames on them, you might be able to successfully intimidate them into silence and thus further an illusion of greater consensus towards your own point of view, as other views will have been aired publicly less often.
But then I went to verify that hypothesis and found that shellymic had, indeed, searched for tweets about Eastwood. But she had mostly retweeted them. The tweets she selected were terribly regrettable. (I would like to think that being on the left means avoiding hateful stereotypes and ageism or making shaming statements about disabled people, but, alas, in America every political stripe can come together to hate dis-empowered groups.) This is a technique I have often used as a way of illustrating poor political discourse and is fine in and of itself. The only other person she flamed, she first quoted.
Similarly, _markjrussel, while more punchy and loquacious, does not seem to make flaming even a significant minority of his twitter activity, although, obviously, I can’t reconfirm this now that he has locked his account.
So really, what gives? Obviously, I want to think it’s my stunning good looks and my brilliant wit that have drawn flames to me like literal flames normally draw moths, but I have a feeling that’s not it. So I’m putting out some questions for anyone reading this: Have you ever insulted a stranger on Twitter? What motivated you to do it? Is it something you do often? How do you decide who to insult?
I have a emotional sort of gut feeling that it’s somewhat appropriate to flame in comment threads or places where discussion is encouraged, but to me, it seems somewhat rude to attack private figures on Twitter. Do you agree or disagree? How do you decide when flaming is appropriate?
I doubt very much that shellymic or _markjrussel will ever vote the same way as me on anything, but I do think it could be helpful in general in America if people of different stripes understood each other better. I don’t like to think of my politics as a side in a match, scoring goals against each other. I want a better world where people are free to live and love and pursue their dreams without having to cope with a pervasive fear of falling.


Well, I think I’ve gotten the only reply I’m going to get:

shellymic: @celesteh @_markjrussell Les, u r an annoying little twit. I didn’t read your little blog. I’ll just block u. Have a great life.

Update 2

shellymic has also locked her twitter feed.

Gig Report: The adoration may not be universal

BiLe had two gigs yesterday but I’m just going to talk about the second one. However, first I’m going to talk about some gigs I played a few years ago. One was a cafe gig, or possible several cage gigs. They tend to blend together. I was playing tuba with some free improvisers, including the owner of the cafe. A bunch of people were there talking, we started to play and just about everybody left.
It’s slightly uncomfortable, but it’s well known to anybody who has ever played in a cafe. And there have been times when I’ve meant to have a cup of coffee and talk with friends and then, rather than talk over the music, we’ve moved on when it started. At other times, I’ve been happily surprised by live music and there have been many times I’ve gone out to a cafe specifically to hear the music that was programmed.
The other was in 2004 and I had just started doing live computer pieces in SuperCollider, but they were not interactive, they were live realisations. (I called them “press the button” pieces.) I was testing out a new one at an open mic night at a restaurant. My friend had organised the evening and asked me to play, but it was me and all acoustic guitars. It was a very early version of the piece and it still had some major aesthetic problems, which became glaringly apparent as it played. Many people in the room left to go home over the course of the piece. It was not a cafe, it was a restaurant. People had plates of food in front of them which they apparently abandoned during the longest 11 minutes of my life. (I blogged about this at the time.)
A few things happened as a result of this. One was that a busboy came out and game me a thumbs up, I’m pretty sure because he liked the music, but you never know. Another was that I instantly got much more respect from my colleagues at the university. For my own part, I pledged to become more aware of how listeners may respond to pieces I was working on to try to prevent a repeat of this. And finally, I learned the value of playing things in front of people as part of the path to finishing a piece.
The reasons for the increased respect from my colleagues is slightly complex. Part of it was simple elitism, but I think a part of it was an encouragement to take risks. Being likeable is not enough. Some fantastic music is loved upon first listening. But a lot is hated. A lot of fantastic an important pieces caused riots on their first playing. 4’33” by John Cage, Rite of Spring by Stravinsky and Ballet Mecanique by George Antheil are all well-known examples of this. Of course, causing an uproar does not mean that you’re good. You could just be terrible. But it does mean you’re taking a risk.
Of course, I tend to blunder into risks blindly and be caught a bit by surprise.


Localities can put on their own, independent TED conferences. One in Birmingham decided to invite BiLE and despite having a gig already lined up the same morning, we agreed to to play.
I’d been at the LoveBytes festival in Sheffield (which was excellent) the day before and stayed over. Alas, it turned out that the reason that my hotel room was so cheap was because it was directly over a Reggae club. I think my room must have been right over the bass amp. One song was in the same key as the resonant frequency of the door frame. We woke up early yesterday morning, played a set at a headphone concert at the LoveBytes Festival, and then got on a train back to Birmingham and got to the MAC centre just in time to set up and play another set at TEDx
We waited nervously back stage for our turn, filed in and started to play XYZ by Shelly Knotts. For some reason, there was a lot of crashing. Chris missed the entire piece, trying to recover from a crash. Julien and Shelly both crashed mid-piece, but were able to recover quickly. I did not crash, but I’m the last to come in. It was sparse and a bit stressful, but we got through it. We’ve played that piece a lot previously. It’s not our first piece, but it’s the first we proposed, as we spent our first-ever meeting writing a vague proposal to NIME last year and this was the piece that we played there.
Then we played Sonnation 2 by Julien Guillamat. We’ve only played that piece a couple of times before, but it’s not difficult. I forgot to plug in my faders and spent the first two minutes trying to figure out what was wrong and then recovering, so it also had some sparseness. The end was not as tight as it could be and I smiled a bit at the error, but then it was over and we filed back off stage.
We always have problems with having the right sort of game face for playing live. I’ve been working on my posture, but we still sometimes slip into head resting on arm with elbow on the table. And I should have kept a straight face at the end. I typed some lines into the speech synthesiser to announce piece titles, which is something I’ve seen other bands do at laptop concerts. I have mixed feelings about it. It seemed better than not engaging at all (which is what we usually do, alas) and we didn’t have a microphone.
Afterwards, we went outside to wait for the talks to end so we could break down our gear. It was then that somebody pulled out their smart phone to check Twitter.


The tweets are below in chronological order (oldest first). While it was clear the performance had some technical issues, it had not seemed unusual in any way. We picked pieces that I thought would be accessible. XYZ has computer game elements, including players competing for control of sound parameters and lo-fi game-ish graphics. Sonnations also seems accessible in that is uses live sampling of metallic instruments, something that has worked with Partially Percussive and because it has a physically performative element at the end. Plus it gets nice sounds.
It may be that the difference between reactions to Sonnations and, say, Partially Percussive may have to do with managing audience reactions in some way. The bells do sound nicer than the kitchen hardware, but, because they look like instruments, the audience may be expecting something much more conventionally tonal. They resonances of the metal bowls might be a nice surprise vs the cow bell sounds might be slightly disappointing. Of course, it’s even more likely that the audience would have found the use of kitchen objects to be unbearably pretentious. It may have been better to play Act 2 of the Laptopera as the second piece. It sounds weirder, but the obvious references to spam email, especially the penis-enlargement ones are funny and may have engaged them. Or maybe not. It’s hard to know.
We’re playing at the symphony hall in May and this does have me a bit worried in that I would not have predicted these crashes and I don’t know what caused them. And I’m worried that we might be too brutal for fans of minimalism. It’s caught on much more than other genres of 21st century art music and appeals to a mainstream audience. Just because an audience wants to be challenged a bit, doesn’t mean they want what we do.
On the other hand, as somebody who often specialises in noise music, I’ve never expected to get mass approval or even approval from the majority of people at any given gig. Probably the only exception here is that I’m not usually as directly exposed to audience reaction. And, indeed, there were people who liked it. So maybe it’s a storm in a teacup? It’s impossible to get perspective on things from the stage, as it were.


  • About to find out what a laptop ensemble is at #TEDxBrum @EskimoDalton
  • And the laptop ensemble are (is?) using macbook pros, because they’re the best kind of laptops #ilovemac #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82 (replies)
  • Oh…it’s BILE! Ha! #TEDxBrum @EskimoDalton
  • What a treat. Watch the bham laptop ensamble being streamed live on #tedxbrum websire now x @JoyOfFengShui
  • Using iphone as a sound control device – motion control + music = electro-weirdness! #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • It’s like being stuck INSIDE A LAPTOP right now #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • i got a headache can we get @Flutebox on pls? #tedxbrum @tedxbrum @Flutebox @aerosolali
  • The Birmingham Laptop Ensemble. It could only come out of the University of Birmingham. #tedxbrum #notforme @mrmarksteadman
    • @mrmarksteadman 🙂 @carolinebeavon
    • @carolinebeavon I’m sure it’s all really clever, but just a tad self-indulgent for me @mrmarksteadman
    • @mrmarksteadman I agree. No real musical quality from what I can tell … But then, I went to BCU 😉 @carolinebeavon
    • @carolinebeavon That’s kinda my point! Good, no-nonsense uni 😉 Sad to have missed @flutebox; will defo check out the @civicolive replay @mrmarksteadman
    • @mrmarksteadman yup. They were great. This … Hmmmm, not a fan @carolinebeavon
    • @carolinebeavon Guess you had to be there. Oh no, you are, sorry. And it continues. *sigh* mrmarksteadman
    • @mrmarksteadman let me out!!!!! 🙂 @carolinebeavon
    • @carolinebeavon OH GOD IT’S SO SMUG! I CAN’T TAKE HOW PLEASED THEY ARE WITH THEMSELVES! (Sorry… just… yeah, sorry.) #tedxbrum @mrmarksteadman
  • Not getting the laptop ensemble – will try harder #tedxbrum @mrspicto
  • I was expecting some form of 8bit electro music. This is not that. #tedxbrum @JAWilletts
  • I think the computers have taken over #tedxbrum @dorvago
  • Very impressive technically, although not sure if it’s supposed to be music? #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
    • @Dr_Bob82 BiLE = sound art ?! @PostFilm
    • @PostFilm I’d agree that it was ‘sound’ but never been a fan of electro-music 🙂 @Dr_Bob82
    • @Dr_Bob82 sound art: I guess it’s just a matter of taste. You don’t hang someone for not liking coffee, anchovies, or cucumber @PostFilm
    • @PostFilm It’s definitely a matter of taste, although occasionally I have felt socially ostracised for not liking coffee 😉 @Dr_Bob82
    • @Dr_Bob82 harmony, melody, rhythm are culture- and time-specific; but electroacoustic is so broad now that it’s difficult to generalise @PostFilm
  • @BiLEnsemble > visually Kraftwerk/Modified Toy Orchestra minus suits, audibly Aphex Twin via laptops & remote controls. Madness! #TEDxBrum @asmallfurrybear
  • #TEDxBrum Bored already @Keybored_KATz
  • Horrible feeling that this isn’t going down as expected… Please, some melody for the love of god!! #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • #TEDxBrum Trying to be positive – but really – pass the paracetamol @Pictoontwit
  • Birmingham Laptop Ensemble – using interference to create music! #tedxbrum @CerasellaChis
  • #TEDxBrum I feel very old right now. @Stephen_Griffin
  • It’s like a game, where I don’t know the rules and can’t tell if it’s glitching or not. #tedxbrum @JAWilletts
  • Think there’s some sort of Kinect-type deal going on here as well with controlling the ‘music’ #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • No, sorry I tried but not for me ( laptop ensemble) #TEDxBRUM @mrspicto
  • somebody pls where is nathan @Flutebox come back pls! #tedxbrum @aerosolali
  • #TEDxBrum can Flutebox come back on please @Pictoontwit
  • #tedxbrum not sure what to make of this music @simonjenner
  • @BiLEnsemble > a possible contender for @supersonicfest 2012 line up? #TEDxBrum @asmallfurrybear
  • nah not for me… Seems too out of control & random…“@vixfitzgerald: I don’t get it #TEDxBrum Birmingham laptop ensemble 🙁 ??” @Soulsailor
  • Like War of the Worlds meets Aphex Twin meets an over-enthusiastic computer geek #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • Anyone else not got a clue what’s going on? Even the performers look disinterested! Smile and nod, smile and nod… #TEDxBrum @MykWilliams
  • Its getting an interesting Twitter reaction. Not sure whether it’s quite a bit too revolutionary. #tedxbrum @JAWilletts
  • As if my head didn’t hurt enough from all the ideas #TEDxBrum crammed in, BiLE start their intense sonic assault @orangejon
  • Birmingham Laptop Ensemble at #TEDxBrum @stanchers
  • #TEDxBrum that made Kraftwerk look pedestrian Stephen_Griffin
  • Birmingham Laptop Orchestra. Industrial grunge synth from the 70s. A little to atonal for me. #tedxbrum @DaveSussman
  • Please. Melody. Just a little bit. I won’t tell the experimentalist musicians that you did it #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • Amazing stuff around here. 🙂 #TEDxBrum @CerasellaChis
  • Talk amongst yourselves. #tedxbrum @mrmarksteadman
  • #TEDxBrum I am sure there mothers are very proud – I am now reflecting on the value or otherwise of a University education @Pictoontwit
  • I feel like this needs an explanation #TEDxBrum @chargedatom
  • Hmm sorry but please don’t “play” another “track” /Birmingham laptop Ensemble ;-( #WTF #TEDxBrum @Soulsailor (replies)
  • WE NEED MOAR COWBELL!: #tedxbrum Dr_Bob82
  • …but i do like the guys stickers on his laptop…. #tedxbrum @aerosolali
  • #TEDxBrum the power of social media – and when you die on your feet even faster @Pictoontwit
  • Really not feeling Laptop Ensemble.I’m afraid at #TEDxBrum even they look bored. @carolinebeavon
  • Wouldn’t it be better to just plug an iPod in. #tedxbrum @dorvago
  • The cowbell is a way too understated instrument, let’s get the cowbell trending too! #TEDxBrum #morecowbell @TEDxBrum
  • Is it possible to rehearse this? #seriousquestion #TEDxBrum @chargedatom
    • @chargedatom I think they’re winging it. Most UoB students do 😉 @Dr_Bob82
  • @BiLEnsemble it’s interesting to watch here in the MAC. Physical meets digital, theres so much that could go wrong, it’s working!! #tedxbrum @Ben_R_Murphy
  • If we don’t get more cowbell, we may as well all go home #cowbell #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • Who spiked my drink with acid? Is this real? #TEDxBrum @craiggumbley
  • I for one, was happy to have #8bit of silence ¦-) #bless RT @mrmarksteadman Talk amongst yourselves. #tedxbrum @Jacattell
  • #TEDxBrum the emperor’s new laptop? @Stephen_Griffin
  • I’m now imagining myself in a rainforest. Away from this. Far away. #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • #TEDxBrum PLEASE STOP @Pictoontwit
  • Britain ‘s not got talent sorry #TEDxBrum @vixfitzgerald
  • One of them must be checking the twitter feed #tedxbrum #multitasking @dorvago
  • Oh dear twitter generated laughter in danger of breaking out now. At least it is a more positive effect than i expected #tedxbrum @mrspicto
  • Ah, so they played instruments at the start, recorded them, now they’ve digitised and resampled them and are playing them back #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • I’m not at #TEDxBrum, but finding the tweets about the “Laptop Ensemble” hilarious. It sounds dreadful (but I bet you all clap at the end). @editorialgirl
  • Ordered chaos; #LOVEIT! MT @Soulsailor nah not for me… Seems too out of control & random… /cc @vixfitzgerald #TEDxBrum @Jacattell
  • #morecowbell #lesscowbell would it make a difference?? #TEDxBrum @chargedatom
  • Massive TUNE! #tedxbrum @n_chalmers
    • @n_chalmers will buy u the CD for ur bday! #tedxbrum @J_K_Schofield
    • @n_chalmers going to download this one after for sure @kathpreston1
  • Twitter is my outlet. Can’t keep straight face. #TEDxBrum @karldoody
  • No one said innovation was going to be easy, right? #TEDxBrum @TEDxBrum
  • #TEDxBrum Warming to BiLE – snugly weird. @Stephen_Griffin
    • @Stephen_Griffin Was that smugly weird? #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • So now the track is on a loop and they’re playing along ‘in real time’ with it. Except it sounds… well… it’s finished now #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • Balls. #tedxbrum @mrmarksteadman
  • #TEDxBrum …. Laptop Ensemble … Seriously … Is that it 😉 @shuhabtrq
  • I want to see more people preoccupied with the stuff BiLE is doing. #TEDxBrum @CerasellaChis
  • Well I liked it… #TEDxBrum @stanchers
  • Brilliant performance from Laptop Ensemble BiLE – enjoyed watching and listening to them on the live stream #TEDxBrum @PostFilm
  • thinks BiLE upset some #tedxbrum delegates who did not want to open up to sound art and opportunity for digital experimentation @PostFilm
  • Skimmed the #TEDxBrum stream – if that sad reaction to @BiLEnsemble is accurate reflection of audience vibe I’m glad I’m not there. @peteashton
    • @peteashton Actually the reception to it IN THE ROOM in the real world was warm. The dissenters were vocal on Twitter. Go figure. @helgahenry
    • @peteashton We don’t know how much info (if any) was given to the audience about what they were listening to. Tweets sounded… surprised. @editorialgirl
    • @editorialgirl Indeed. I just don’t think I’d enjoy being in an audience which is surprised in that way by their work. Which is fine. @peteashton
    • @peteashton if it’s any consolation at all, I was there, at TEDxBrum & I enjoyed BiLE. New to me, a surprise, yes, but in a good way! @KendaLeeG
  • @hellocatfood I think you v can now legitimately claim to be a misunderstood artist now! The #TedxBrum audience just weren’t ready for you. @AndyPryke
  • @gregmcdougall there was a random laptop music segment that didn’t work for me then more awesomeness #TEDxBrum @Soulsailor
  • for me ‘sound art’ is part of the creative “T” in TED. More radical digitral sonic experimentation please from BiLE #tedxbrum @PostFilm
  • Oddest moment today: watching @BiLEnsemble use modern technology to give the audience a scarily accurate experience of tinnitus. #tedxbrum @catharker
  • #tedxBrum @BiLEnsemble have potential. I heard some cool sounding stuff and was a little jazzy. Maybe mix with instruments/samples/beats? @RenewableSave
  • i see bile at #tedxbrum has caused some controversy. i don’t think any performer has an inherent right to have their performance liked. @simonjgray
    • (& i type this as somebody who has made music which is well far from being universally liked. #tedxbrum ) @simonjgray
  • Really enjoyed playing at #lovebytes and #tedxbrum yesterday… as well as the post-TED discussion 😉 @BiLEnsemble
    • @BiLEnsemble and we enjoyed you! @TEDxBrum, out of interest, was the #lovebytes performance different? @Ben_R_Murphy
    • @BiLEnsemble well done BiLE performing at #tedxbrum !!!! @InterFace_2012
  • @celesteh obvious there were probs at #TEDxBrum, but I enjoyed the pieces – although was brought up on Harvey’s “Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco” @davidburden
  • BiLE Blog #tedxbrum @PostFilm
  • BiLE’s last piece at #TEDxBrum Quietat points so some mobile signal interference. @Acuity_Design

Twitter Supercollider App

There are some people twittering supercollider code. They do sound generating apps in 140 characters or less! I’ve just created some code to fetch and play these. It uses a yahoo pipe which looks for tweets tagged with and which seem to contain a playable piece of code. It also does some sanitizing to ignore potentially evil content.
This is a first draft, so it requires a helper script, written in bash, which is called


ss  >   /tmp/rss.xml

The SC code is:

r = {{
  var code, new_code, syn, doc, elements;{
   doc ="/tmp/rss.xml");"/tmp/rss.xml", "r"));
   elements = doc.getElementsByTagName("description");
   elements.notNil.if ({
    new_code = elements.last.getText;
    ((new_code == code).not).if ({
     code = new_code;
     (syn.notNil).if ({; s.freeAll; });
     syn = code.interpret;


Replace the path information with the correct one, start the server, select all the code and hit enter. If you find a bug or a way to be evil, please leave a comment.