Felix Biederman & the Social Norms of Twitter

I wrote this post on the day that Felix Biederman’s Twitter account, @ByYourLogic, was suspended, and forgot to hit Publish. Today, his account is back, and word on the street is that he was suspended for getting confused with Mark Kirk’s press secretary. This article now captures a moment in time and is already irrelevant. I think that’s what makes it cool. It’s a time capsule of a 3-day period that means nothing.

Today, Felix Biederman got banned from Twitter for the second time, and nobody quite knows why. It could be for angering Saudis, it could be for angering former Jeopardy players who don’t like thinking through their opinions, and hate it when you call them out for not thinking through their opinions.

Biderman’s ban probably says more about the nature of corporations than it does about any social trend. Like the companies who pulled their ads from Gawker after gamergate guys spread the rumor that Gawker had “advocated bullying,” Twitter is a corporation, and the best way to handle your shareholders is to avoid the kind of controversy that makes them scratch their heads. This allergy to controversy will lead corporations to make decisions you agree with, but it will also, inevitably, lead them to make decisions that you hate.

But when I found out that he’d been banned, I didn’t immediately think about any of that. I just thought about how disappointed I was, and how much more dull the internet would be without him.

I joined Twitter to see people say funny stuff and to get rapid news updates about topics that I’m interested in.

Most of the people I follow on Twitter are writers. And most of the time, I don’t follow writers because I particularly love them. Often I follow them because I saw a quote from an article by them and thought, “I like that quote, now I’m going to follow that writer.”

Sometimes it’s because I think, “I bet that writer has good thoughts about other things, so I’d like those thoughts to go straight to my feed.” But most of the time it’s not even that. Most of the time it’s because of the way that Twitter gamifies follows. The act of following and being followed is compelling — and, for some, addicting — in a similar manner to games like Farmville, where the fun is in building a version of yourself in the game, and getting notifications about how your game-self is developing. Sometimes you just want to add to the collection of people you follow online.

Because Twitter means following people you ultimately know little about, it means that you get to learn what types of thoughts they decide to express in exchange for retweets and favorites. And sometimes you see them express godawful opinions. And you see those godawful opinions get liked and retweeted hundreds of times.

And sometimes, you unfollow that person, and you see that person’s awful opinion getting echoed by other people you follow. And sometimes, even once you’ve unfollowed everyone whose ideas aggravate you, you’ll see other people you know clashing with those people you’ve unfollowed. If Facebook is the place where you unfriend your racist uncle, Twitter is the place where you unfollow one of Clinton’s most obnoxious male supporters, only to find him mansplaining harassment to a woman you know, while calling her ugly.

Biederman pissed off a lot of people — he pissed off homeless-phobic news aggregators, Wahabbists, Islamophobes, and liberal hawks who live off foundation money. But, on top of these people’s narcissistic politics, he poked fun at one trait they all have in common — their desire to dish it out but not take it.

And Twitter can often be a surprisingly hospitable place to people who like dishing it out but not taking it. It’s full of scenarios where your thin skin in the face of feedback can be mistaken for courage in the face of an onslaught of harassment. There’s a combination of sadism and shyness that is frowned upon in many parts of the real world. On Twitter, it is a social norm.

To see Biederman constantly poke fun at this was often a relief. I often suspected that he enjoyed it a little bit too much for comfort, but, nonetheless, seeing him interact with Twitter’s passive bullies made me feel hopeful about the world.

It made me hopeful that maybe, one day, people would see the world as a place where people will inevitably have strong and conflicting opinions, rather than an overwhelming place that can only be tolerated after you log on, type, “Black Lives Matter is terrorism, and the uncivil trolls who disagree only prove my point,” and get 1000 retweets.