Numlock Sunday: Ryan Broderick on how the internet gets better
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week I spoke to Ryan Broderick, who wrote “Twitter invented a Clippy for cyberbullying” for his newsletter Garbage Day. Here's what I wrote about it:
A new study by Twitter released the results of the sitewide experiment where users about to tweet something heinous or aggressive were prompted with a brief question asking if they’d like to reconsider that message before sending. Turns out the nudge really works: Of those nudged, while 69 percent did just send it, 9 percent actually canceled the tweet, and 22 percent revised it. Of those 22 percent who tweaked the tweet, 8 percent made it less offensive, 13 percent kept it pretty much as offensive as it initially was but with slightly different wording, and 1 percent actually went ahead and made it more offensive. Still, that’s really rather good, with a quick little “are you sure?” causing sufficient introspection to divert 17 percent of combative tweets into something a little bit more palatable. Furthermore, the study found that once exposed to the prompt, users were 4 percent less likely to make a second offensive reply.
Ryan’s newsletter is my favorite read. It’s a delightful dive into the daily morass of internet culture, memes, trends and more; he’s the Virgil, we’re the Dantes, and we’re all having a good time on our field trip into the abyss. Definitely check it out.
We spoke about the Twitter study, the current state of internet discourse, and furries. Considerably more about furries than I originally planned on, actually. Many paragraphs. That said, his take on their centrality to the ecosystem of the internet is fascinating.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Ryan, thank you so much for coming on. You are the originator of Garbage Day, which is my favorite newsletter. It's an internet culture newsletter. You track all these different things, whether it's memes, whether it's trends, whether it's the evolution of discourse. How would you say the state of internet culture and discourse is right about now?
Honestly, I think it's great. I really do.
I think that there are so many good stories right now, and so many interesting things happening online, in a way that just wasn't true, I think, five years ago. I feel like the Trump era gave us this illusion of discourse and this illusion of trends and this illusion of things happening, but if you look at it as a whole now, as we've gotten some distance, it was a really boring four years where a bunch of psychos from '80s tabloids ran the world. It was very un-online, actually.
We all had to pretend like 4chan was a cultural force. It was really exhausting.
One thing that has changed, I think, is that now we have TikTok, we have Web3, we have the renaissance of older platforms like Tumblr coming back. It's just a lot more interesting, I think, now.
Yeah. It's been exciting to see that. I think fandom for a while was synonymous with toxicity, but now it actually seems to be building its own silos once again, and it's not all bad.
No, it's not all bad. I mean, the bad is bad. I do think that, like with the Johnny Depp, Amber Heard stuff, we can see how the bad might be getting worse. But I do think that the pandemic helped a lot of people stop pretending they didn't care about what they were doing online, which I don't think was ever true, but there was this mainstream consensus in America that the internet was secondary to everything else. When you do a year and a half of Animal Crossing parties and family Zoom calls and way too much YouTube consumption, I think eventually, you usually have to stop pretending that that's true.
Now we have people who are finally in a serious way, saying, "The internet is a form of public space and it matters, and what happens here is important, and it's not just some random thing," and it's great. It's a great feeling. For the last 10 years, it felt like I had to pretend this was all weird to talk about, when everyone was having the same experiences online. But now we can all just say, "Yeah, this stuff matters."
The reason I want to really talk to you is because you covered this academic study that came out of Twitter actually, about a thing that they attempted to improve the discourse on their site. It wasn't a ban. It wasn't directly mucking with the content that they display or anything. It was actually just attempting to appeal to the conscience of people who were being dicks. It seemed to, potentially, show a pathway forward. Can you talk a little about what they rolled out and then what they found?
Yeah, so it's a little widget that runs on an AI that analyzes your tweet right before you send it, and if it finds that your tweet is offensive or aggressive or violent, it will pop up before you publish, and it'll say, "It looks like you're writing a hate tweet. Would you like to reconsider that?"
The study found that it did reduce about 20 percent in different ways. About 10 percent of users didn't send the tweet and about another 10 percent reconsidered their tweet using less harsh language. About 1 percent decided to double down and become more aggressive, which I thought was very funny and very internet.
Yeah, that sounds about right.
That makes sense to me, of course. But the idea that this tiny little widget reduced 20 percent of the toxicity happening on the site is fascinating. But then even more fascinating is that the study found that not only did it reduce actively 20 percent of the toxicity; even for the users who still tweeted the bad thing, the prompt caused them to be less aggressive in the long term. Just by experiencing the prompt, it changed their long-term behavior.
Then most excitingly for me is that it changed the way that other users replied to them. It's like that horrible movie with Kevin Spacey, Pay It Forward. It really shows you that a very small bit of friction in the machine can have a tremendously profound effect on the entire network, which I think is just awesome.
I love that you use the word friction, because again, it's not stopping you from being an asshole on Twitter; it's like installing a speed bump on the street, and then you notice that the speed goes down across the entire neighborhood.
Right. Everyone wants to talk about internet moderation in these black and whites, which I think is just a ridiculous idea — which is, it's either all free speech or no free speech, which is not true. Even Jack Dorsey, the free speech maximalist, he's still not out there advocating for the total and 100 percent universal access to child pornography. He's not a complete lunatic.
There's no such thing in any country on earth, but especially America, of 100 percent free speech. Everyone loves that stupid fire in a movie theater analogy, but that's not even what we're talking about here. What we're talking about here is, honestly, it's probably the difference between a handgun and an assault weapon. The friction that we're talking about when it comes to small moderation issues like this is, do you want to be in a website that is screaming at you to scream back at it constantly? Or do you want to be on a website that's putting a little bit of distance between you and the more aggressive, violent, digital impulses you might have?
What this study in my opinion has proved is that you can do literally the bare minimum. You don't even have to change the rest of your website. You just have to have a little flag that pops up that says, "You're about to be an asshole." And it might reduce people being an asshole, which is great, I think.
It's so interesting. I also thought it was interesting that the same week that you wrote about this story, you wrote about somebody who literally trained an AI on 4chan's /pol/ board and then set it loose with absolutely no restrictions.
Yeah. It produced 30,000 posts in 24 hours, which yeah, it's a horrific idea. Even to make it is horrific. 4chan is a website that has zero friction. There is no need to log in. There's the most basic spam prevention to make sure it's not just full of garbage, but other than that, there's just nothing there. They have moderators for child pornography. They call them janitors. But other than the janitors, there's nothing. You can do whatever you want, and we know what a completely frictionless website looks like. We have many of them. This idea that Twitter — Elon Musk loves this idea, Jack Dorsey loves this idea, all those Dark Enlightenment Silicon Valley guys love this idea that the internet should just be this free for all and no one can ever be censored. But we're not talking about censorship. We're just talking about not having a flaming dumpster fire as a public space online.
It was interesting earlier how you alluded that the pandemic shifted things. The pandemic seemed to shift a lot of things, and it almost seems like Facebook was wrong for a lot of reasons, but Facebook's early idea that you do have to chain your username to your specific identity, that seems to be entering a little bit more mainstream even on other platforms.
It's an interesting debate, and it's one that I definitely have mixed feelings about. Okay, so say you're a white straight male. Chances are, if you want to be pseudonymous on the internet, it's not for particularly good reasons. Chances are, if you're being anonymous or pseudonymous, it's because you're trying to get away with something, right?
But if you think about outside of that framework and you think about good reasons for pseudonymity or anonymity, the ones that pop into my mind are for people who are trying to express parts of themselves that they can't, or don't feel comfortable, expressing in public.
The internet was created by furries and furries are a community that believes very highly in the value of pseudonymity. That community, which is one that I believe built the modern internet, they believe in pseudonymity, but they also believe in accountability for your pseudonym, which I think is very interesting, too.
I don't think we need to throw the baby out with the bath water here. I don't think we need to have an internet license that is attached to your Social Security number to log on or something. Because I think that one of the joys of the internet is being able to invent new identities and being able to express parts of yourself you don't feel comfortable with in person. I think that's one of the most valuable things the internet's ever given society. You think about the amount of LGBT teenagers who are able to role-play different identity types on places like Tumblr years before they're able to feel comfortable, or safe, to do it in person. That's really important to me.
I also think that there's some value to anonymity in generating new ideas. Bitcoin, whether we want to say it's good or bad, we can probably say it's revolutionary, and we can say it's revolutionary and also say it was invented by a pseudonym: Satoshi Nakamoto, we don't know who that person is. That person chose that way of doing it because they wanted to create something that was larger than one person. Occupy Wall Street was created largely pseudonymously. We know organizers, but it was a decentralized anonymous movement. Anonymous, the activist group, they're an anonymous group.
We can point to examples where not using your real name is actually very valuable or at least important. Whether we say it's good or bad is a whole different conversation. I do think that there's always going to be a value for that, and I want to protect spaces that allow you to do that. Also, tons of people are racist with their real name on Facebook, so for any use case you can point to, for real names, I can give you a bunch of bad examples of why that's bad, too. So I guess, that's a long, rambly way of saying, "It's very complicated."
I would be a failure of a journalist and remiss if I did not ask you to expand on this idea that you put forward, that furries are responsible for the creation of the modern internet.
Oh yeah. Sure. Well, if you ever search furries IT, you'll see a bunch of memes about this. I'm paraphrasing a couple of tweets I saw recently, which is just that the backbone of all infrastructure online is maintained by four furries, and it's true. One of the people behind like the Moderna vaccine is a furry, who posts as a furry on the internet. I know many people who work at massive tech companies that are furries. And I think that the reason why furries were early adopters online, and they do predate the internet, but the reason why I think furries in particular were so popular online is because the internet gave them the ability to role-play as this other identity that they really cared about, which was this anthropomorphic cartoon character.
If you ever want to see what's about to become popular on the internet, go look at what furries were doing five or six or seven years ago. This whole idea of NFTs — what is an NFT, except for just a very bad version of furry commission artwork, which is very lucrative. The metaverse, our concept of it, was largely invented on Second Life by furries. You have to also point out here that furries are largely queer-adjacent, or just full on queer community, so the idea that we have a bunch of queer role-players building the technology of the future and they don't get any credit for it just drives me up a wall. Because I just think, I'm not a furry, but I just think what they've done for the internet is just really incredible, and I like giving them credit wherever I can.
I love that. I also, again, Garbage Day is a magnificent newsletter. I cannot sing its phrases often enough. One thing I loved was in the initial rollout of Non Fungible Tokens (NFTs), one of the first super big red flags for me, I think, was when you wrote about how furry communities were fairly explicitly rejecting this.
And if a community that commissions more art than a Medici is not in favor of NFTs, it is a somewhat condemnation of the infrastructure as it stands.
I think that's exactly right. Basically, any use case you can think of for NFTs has already happened for years in the furry community for commissioned artwork. Just for your readers who don't really know what I'm talking about: If you're a good artist and you're part of the furry community, or even if you're not but you like furries, you can make like six figures a year commissioning artwork on the internet for furries.
Usually the way this works is, I come up with a pseudonym, let's say I'm Ryan GrayWolf, and I want an artist to draw my character. I get artwork commissioned and then I use that artwork on places like Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, and that's my persona, my "fursona."
The NFT community very quickly was like, "Oh, your NFT could be your profile picture on Twitter," which is the exact same idea. But then Twitter even gave them that stupid verified hexagonal profile picture that syncs to your OpenSea account or whatever.
That is literally just a riff on what furries were doing! And the hilarious thing was that furries are able to keep their personas unique because they created a unique persona. They created something unique. Whereas the NFT community is so creatively bankrupt that they have no way of actually creating anything original or interesting, so they can't fall back on that.
Then all of the problems with furry commissioned artwork also happened with the NFT world, whereas there was a DeviantArt community a couple years ago that had a massive case of market manipulation and hyperinflation for this economy of custom-made artwork. The whole thing went up in flames because of, well, the same problems that you saw with NFTs. It's just really funny that all of the problems that we watched these very well-funded Web3 startups have over the last two years, you could almost time it out, by what happened three or four years ago.
That's remarkable. It's excellent. The newsletter's called Garbage Day. Have you got any shows coming up for Caveat? Anything that you want to plug? What else you got coming up?
So right now for Garbage Day paying readers, I'm doing that Cultural Blind Spot Mini series over the summer every Friday. I think that's been really fun. I was doing a ton of shows over the last year and I'm taking the next two months off, which I'm very excited about, but we do have one on the books in August at Caveat, so if anyone wants to come hang out with a bunch of other internet people, that would be the best time to do that.
In terms of the summer, I'm relaxing, which I think I'm very excited about doing. If people want to hear my voice talk about these things, they can always come find me at the podcast I do with my friend, Luke Bailey, which is The Content Mines. It is like, imagine if I had Garbage Day and I had to argue Garbage Day out with a very unamused British man. That's essentially the pitch for the podcast.
The Socratic method.
We were described as a high-minded pub chat about the internet, yeah. But other than that, a quiet summer, I'm looking forward to it.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.