Gabbering

By Benjamin Massey

October 20th, 2016

Gab ought to be right up my street. Think of it as Twitter without the censorship1. Those who were shocked when Twitter blocked an anti-Erdogan Turkish journalist within Turkey hadn’t been paying attention. In the name of combating “harassment” Twitter has been temporarily or permanently banning public figures, almost entirely of the anti-establishment right wing, for months. Not that this has done anything to win it friends among the sort of people who complain about that, since nothing ever does.

Unverifiable reports of “shadowbans,” where a user is not banned but has his tweets hidden or deprioritized on the streams of his followers, abound, most recently driving Dilbert cartoonist and magnificent eccentric Scott Adams to Gab. Unless some former Twitter developer goes public this borderline-conspiracy-theory will never be proven; this is the nature of shadowbanning, where ideally the user will never realize it’s happened. It is, however, undisputable that Twitter manipulates search results and trending topics, and they prioritize “important” tweets in your timeline already.

Judging by the multi-week wait for a Gab account2, there is a great cry for an alternative. Twitter’s last virtue is that everyone else uses it. Unless and until Gab becomes as universal as Twitter, those who cut the bird out entirely also cut themselves off from a huge number of friends and agreeable strangers. (Follow me on Gab!) That’s no reason not to join at all; I don’t know that I know anybody else with a Gab account, but the same applies to early Twitter adopters who created an account on a whim and now tweet twenty times a day.

Moreover, because Twitter censorship has primarily been directed at right-wing figures, those driven away will primarily be right-wing themselves. Twitter, by contrast, is especially on political occasions an enormous globalist echo chamber, to the point that thousands of young engaged social media gurus literally can’t believe it when the people disagree with them. This can be tiresome. It is more fun to argue politics with someone who doesn’t think you’re vaguely horrible or can’t really believe those things.

“Well done,” you may sneer. “You’ve traded a so-called left-wing echo chamber for a right-wing echo chamber.” To my alarm, yes, that is exactly what I’ve done.

It’s a problem of demographics. In the same way that condo boards primarily attract those who like board meetings and student councils those who want to make decisions for other people, Gab so far interests those who think Twitter is lefty paradise and are, probably unconsciously, making a righty paradise. It’s not so much that 90% of Gab would probably vote for Donald Trump, although they probably would, but it’s that that’s what they have in common. That’s what the “social” in “social media” consists of in this context.

Their version of “trending” lists its ten most “popular” posts for the past two days. As of this writing, all ten of today’s most popular posts are pro-Donald Trump. Only three of yesterday’s are, but six are either by or about the aforementioned Scott Adams and the last is a post about homeschooling that, while not specifically pro-Trump, would make you correctly guess that the user has “#MAGA” somewhere in her profile. This isn’t just bias from the recent American presidential debate; every day is the same. Trump, Trump, Trump, here and there a backpatting post about the openmindedness and courtesy of the #GabFam that won’t convince an outsider this is a vibrant, interesting community. In fact these posts are mostly courteous, though monotonous, and their authors must have other interests, but the community is set up to encourage a fixation on politics that is frankly diseased. I’ve had a Gab account for a week and haven’t written a thing on it.

What is there to say? Who wants to go on the Internet these days and argue about Donald Trump? Going “yeah right on he’s horrible!” or “yeah right on he’s going to make America great again!” to your political confrères is as high as that discourse can get in anything short of the pub. The great joy of social media is shooting the breeze with old friends, and making new friends as you discover common interests you never would have guessed at. It’s discussing the book you just read, shouting at the sports team that’s filled its britches again, learning something new you would otherwise have missed, swapping inside jokes, and connecting with individuals. Reciting personal pieties to fellow-travelers, though most of us do it, is really the least appetizing part of the experience. And that’s, quite literally, all Gab is.

As the episode of the Turkish journalists demonstrated, there is no reason why Twitter censorship should be a partisan issue. With anything of luck, Gab will someday reach critical mass and its interests will expand. In hope of that day, please do sign up. Until then, though, free speech isn’t much use without something to talk about.

  1. And a few changes, like Reddit-style upvoting and downvoting, less of the rampant user-hostile dickery that has made Twitter’s official products increasingly difficult to use, and a 300-character limit, that I find appealing.
  2. Ostensibly because Gab, which relies on donations, is unable to scale quickly enough to meet demand, new users face a waitlist before they can use the service. I signed up for Gab on September 29 and was able to make my account on October 13.

One response to “Gabbering”

  1. Faiz Imam says:

    Huh, so this is a thing?

    It strikes me as analogous to the Reddit vs Voat debacle. Voat was created as a nearly identical reaction to increased moderation and control on Reddit, and for a short time after it was widely publicized it had quite significant user growth.

    But as you say about Gab, the vast majority of the content was focused on a limited set of alt-right topics and it meant as the furor calmed, the interest in the site overall did as well. If you’re going there to complain about immigrants but can’t find an outlet to complain about how Activision is ruining videogames, why stay?

    Nor is this the first time someone has tried to create alternatives to Twitter. Yammer? Identi.ca? Jaiku? I’m sure i’m missing plenty. And that’s not even getting into all the “Facebook killers” out there.

    The real question is, are the people who’ve chosen to migrate to gab done so out of a sense of outrage over twitter or due to some inherent value in Gab? If the service is to succeed, it must convert the former to the latter. Most such failures have been the result of massive excitement over the features or cultural promise of a new service, followed by a gradual “death by abandonment” as everyone goes back to the party on the other side of the street with all the cool kids.

    One major challenge ideological echo chambers face is that the subjects and targets of their discussion are not on the same service as them. Trump is never going to be on Gab, neither is any target of their vitriol. If they want to actually engage with the wider society, they’ll need to remain on the major network in some fashion. This splitting inherently limits engagement.

    Another issue is that the people outside the fringe group being oppressed by twitter is (duh) very small. Most people are both not affected and don’t particularly care about those that are. This is part of why Reddit is still doing well after it’s recent scandals. The fundamental factors that made it a success remain present, and are notoriously hard to emulate or replace. (RIP Digg…)

    So, the likely result is that gab will end up like literally ten of thousands of small communities all over the internet. They’ll have their primary subject of interest and have organic tangents that make it valuable for it’s regular users. But no celebrity PR consultant will *EVER* tell their client “you should make a gab account”.

    But that’s not a bad thing either. Heck, Canadiansoccernews is still around, it (allegedly) has value. Same deal.

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