Trendsetting Garbage

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Not loving the new Twitter? Here’s how to revert back to the old desktop version (Manchester Evening News)

Now that my AFL club is doing well again (albeit with a propensity for needing last-second heroics week after week to get wins, even against bottom-of-the-ladder clubs), I’ve been looking at more Australian Rules Football videos online lately. As I’ve been doing so, I’ve noticed that there is one user on YouTube — I won’t mention their name, but I will say that they’ve uploaded zero videos, and their user icon is the logo for the Manchester United soccer club — who has gone on seemingly half the footy videos on YouTube, and posted the exact same comment, word for word, on all of them. In short, this user points out how soccer enjoys a much larger fanbase worldwide, and footy isn’t even the most popular sport of every territory in Australia (since a couple of them still prefer rugby). Except for brand-new videos, it’s hard to find a popular footy video where this user has not posted that comment.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of when I first got Internet access (pass the Ensure), and it kind of surprises me that I can still have these reactions to Internet comments after all this time. I think there’s a good argument to be made that not challenging people who post deliberate falsehoods on the Internet is part of the reason why the world is going to shit at breakneck speed right now, but in the case of this person commenting on footy videos, nothing in the comment they’re posting is wrong. It’s absolutely true that soccer fans vastly outnumber footy fans worldwide, and some Australian territories prefer rugby to footy. This commenter is just engaging in a troll that’s only notable for how it manages to both be incredibly widespread and incredibly lazy at the same time.

Normally I try to avoid online comments, since I learned how Internet comment sections quickly devolve into poo-flinging contests in my first years online. In the case of footy videos, though, I do sometimes scroll through comments because as much as I love footy, I’m still learning a lot of things about it, since I’ve never been able to really immerse myself in footy the same way that I’ve been immersed in the big four American sports since my earliest years. Without any footy fans to readily converse with, hunting through YouTube comments for useful information is one of the few ways I have of learning the intricacies of the game, and sometimes there are a few gems in the comment sections that help me. I just have to cope with the muck of the commenters like the one I mentioned above.

I think that a lot of Internet services understand that a good percentage of their users just don’t want to deal with open comment sections, since the services take some steps to make comments (or at least comments from strangers) easy to ignore. Facebook used to be relatively decent about this until a few months ago, but now they’re starting to bring in posts from some truly repugnant pages that some of my well-meaning friends have commented on, so I’m forced to see not just the original posts that spurred my friends to reply, but also other comments from people who are all too proud of the fact that they’re living examples of how the human race is devolving before our eyes. Some services are better at this (I may be one of the few people on the face of the planet who still misses Google+), and some are worse, but striking a balance between having accessible comment sections for those who care to use them, and making them easy to ignore for people like me who don’t want to deal with them, can be a difficult balance.

Since I use my desktop computer for so much of the work I do in my teaching and writing careers, I’m almost always accessing Twitter via the twitter.com website, which I keep in one of the many tabs I always have going on Chrome. As many problems as I have with Twitter — beyond barring me from advertising on their platform, and then turning around and being a total hypocrite about the same “principles” when it comes to corporations — their old desktop client had an easily-ignorable “Trending” section that I hardly ever saw over the course of my day, since it wouldn’t even appear on my screen unless I had to scroll down for some reason. It’s not even that the Trending section is all that horrible, since it does some half-decent customization based on what it knows about you, but when there is mass stupidity spreading across Twitter, that stupidity trends, and it will show up on your client whether you want it to or not.

Last week wound up being a double whammy for me on the Twitter front. First I was forced to migrate to the new layout for the web client (and I really don’t like its user interface, but that’s a topic for another time), and then a few days later, when I first logged onto Twitter, right at the top of “Trends for you” was a hashtag that, even without any context, I immediately deduced was yet another far-out right-wing conspiracy theory, and I was right. (I don’t even like the targets of the conspiracy theory, but I hate harmful bullshit against anyone even more.) Thanks to the fact that this new “Trends for you” section stays static regardless of how you scroll your timeline — the only way I can make it disappear is to resize my Chrome window narrower than it needs to be for some of the other things I use it for on a daily basis — I was pretty much confronted with it for most of the day, a regular reminder of how the far-right has gamed these systems to let them promote their hatred through things like Twitter trends and YouTube “related” videos. (Another problem with footy videos on YouTube is how many of them recommend videos of conservative cretins allegedly “owning” or “schooling” other people, simply because the promoters of those videos have mastered YouTube’s faulty algorithms to get their videos recommended everywhere, like a two-year-old boy whipping his penis out and peeing everywhere just because it gives him the attention he wants.)

I’ll point you to the work of James Bridle (if you aren’t already familiar with it) for a more in-depth discussion of the problems inherent in reliance on these imperfect algorithms, but as much of a problem as things like Twitter trends and YouTube “related” videos are — and the only people who don’t think these are serious problems are the people making money off them — there need to be better ways for people to ignore what’s in the comments, or what heinous hashtag is being forced down people’s throats, or the dickery of far-right zealots on YouTube. This isn’t an argument for getting rid of comments or recommendations entirely, but just a plea for those of us who want to watch Australian Rules Football videos without having to deal with irrelevant discourse about soccer’s worldwide popularity, or see what our friends are posting on Twitter without constant reminders of the palpable bullshit that right-wingers are foisting on the rest of us, to be able to use the services while ignoring what we neither want nor need to see. Without that, we’re all being force-fed what is “popular,” and just like with soccer, popularity doesn’t mean that those of us who don’t like it should be forced to deal with it.

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