Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The story of #svpol

Twitter is a strange beast. One can only write 140 characters, and not even that when all the @'s, #'s and smileys are counted. Somehow, it still manages to mobilize and motivate millions of people to think, feel and do things together - perhaps because of this very small cast of characters. Everyone's on the short list.

It is also short in a more timely fashion. Except for certain celebrity and/or horse tweets that get reprinted in slower media, the average life span of a tweet is relatively short. Where blog posts can get readers for months (by process of the long tail), tweets are measured in minutes. You have to do some heavy lifting to read tweets older than a few hours, and you have to be really dedicated to go further back.

Furthermore, the built in search function on Twitter is rather less than spectacular, to say the least. Which contributes to Twitter being in a constant state of now-now-now-now.

With this in mind, and for the inherent value of being able to read about how things went down ex post facto, I wrote down the story of #svpol. Which, for those of you not living in the Scandinavian/Swedish language area, was the central hub for political tweeting. Until things went very, very wrong.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the story of how the internet malfunctions: the rise and fall of #svpol.

In a time long long ago, in the mythical year of 2010, there was an election in the far far away land of Sweden. And as in every democratic country prior to election day, every political junkie of every political color and party were overjoyed to tell everyone with (or without) ears about how awesome their affiliation of choice was. In the beginning everyone did their own thing, shouting out slogans into the virtual desert, with little or no effect. Then, a pattern emerged. Some started to use #val2010 [#election2010] while writing about, well, the election, and soon others followed suit. With time, more and more people chimed in, and as election day loomed closer, the more intense the activity became. Everyone was there - leftists, rightists, radicals, even the stray anarchist who hated all things parliamentary.

And while there, they argued. Oh how they argued. Moderates, social democrats, pirates and centrists - if any political junkie ever had an argument with any other political junkie, it happened then. And there. Yet despite all the arguing, a kind of bond was forged. There is a certain community to knowing where to go to find those who want to argue.

Then, election day came and went, and the hashtag become a place for analyzing the election results. And, as you might imagine, people soon figured that they had exhausted every possible angle every possible percentage point. There's only ever so much you can say about an election result. And by the by, people started drifting off into the virtual loneliness again.

But just letting #val2010 die, and return to the way things were before, wasn't an appealing notion. After all, it was kind of nice to have somewhere to go for that political quick fix, even if the only people online at that moment came from other parties. Only speaking to those who agree with you all day long isn't all that it's cranked up to be, and Twitter is bigger than one's short list of friends. That's kind of the point.

So slowly but surely, #svpol grew into existence. Not without competition, of course - #swpol, #svepol and countless other varieties were in use. Even #val2011 came into being, in regards to the (very local) reelections. But after a process of informal elimination, #svpol reigned supreme. And before anyone knew it, order (and the constant, disorderly arguments that signified it) was restored.

As you might imagine, there was no plan, no official entity or really anything other than an informal agreement. An agreement that said, okay, we political junkies will use #svpol, and that's the extent of this agreement. A sentiment that "we may disagree about just about everything else in the world, but this one thing we can agree on".

It's really something of a political step forward. Not the constant arguing - there's hopefully no way to forwardstep that out of existence. But the fact that you (or anyone else) could gauge the current political mood by just taking a quick look at the discussions taking place - that's progress. And it gave many people an insight into contemporary politics that would have taken an absurdly long time to get otherwise.

Was it perfect? No, but it existed. And it worked in an everyday setting, which is just about as perfect as things political can get.

If this was the whole story, it would be quite boring. And unnecessary to write about, to say the least. Unfortunately, the story turns downhill from here.

One day, the site formerly known as Politiskt Inkorrekt (what used to be the leading platform for anti-islamism and general racism, now defunct) got an idea. Their main activity was to write subtly racist posts, and then letting the readers be not be too subtly racist in the comments. This in order to let the commenters bond in their expressed racism, whilst claiming that the things they themselves published (and thus were responsible for) weren't that bad. (Mainly for technical legal reasons, but not without a nod to the community building aspect.)

Then, suddenly, one day, they stumbled upon this idea: "Let's let loose the forces of comment trolling upon the general public! For too long the uncritical hegemony of contemporary islamophiles have dominated Twitter, and it is time to bring the Truth to the world! Let a thousand eggs bloom!"

They wrote a post about it, explaining that #svpol was a haven for the worst kinds of Cultural Marxists (a very technical islamophobe term, not to be confused with any kind of real Marxism) and that everyone there needed to be told about the upcoming Muslim threat. And, to help newcomers, they included a basic guide to how Twitter works. It went like this: "Give 'em hell, and tag everything with #svpol".

And before anyone knew it, the #svpol timeline was filled with all kinds of ideological "truths". Mostly about immigration, the Muslim threat, the conspiracy of lies from the mainstream media to black out certain topics, the hegemony of cultural marxism that strangles contemporary thought, the feminist threat to humanity - just the kind of unfettered racist propaganda you'd expect to see in the darker corners of the internet. To visualize it, just take the worst comment section you can find and multiply by a factor of months.

And what the newly immigrated tweeters lacked in powers of persuasion and reason, they more than made up for in number and persistence. (They are, in fact, still going strong. Even now, as I rework this post years later.) As soon as anyone said anything, they were immediately ganged up on. No matter the subject, argument, person, time of day, anything - everything got the same treatment. Times many.

It didn't take long for the hashtag to turn into a wretched hive of scum and villainy. The trolls outnumbered the junkies, and those few who stuck around in an attempt to outlast the onslaught were eventually worn down by attrition. Soon, only the industrial repetition of racist propaganda were to be found.

You can imagine the anger and loss many felt as they discovered that the once lively gathering point now was a watering hole for barely literate, propaganda spewing fanatics. Not only because of the fanatically spewed propaganda (in all its unfettered racism), but because of the breach of the informal agreement. We political junkies do not agree upon anything, ever, except this one thing, this one hashtag.

That hashtag was a valuable thing. If you needed to know what was going on at any particular time, all you needed to do was to check it out. It was a news source, mood meter and community builder, all at once. And it's a shame to see it lost due to people who have no idea what they do, yet who do it anyway.

And so I document this, in the hopes that by the time you read it, we will have learned from past mistakes. Not that we've gotten things perfect - things will never be perfect - but that we've managed to get along. Even while still duking it out, doing our thing in coexisting, competitive parallel.

It happened once, after all. And hope is always the last thing to die.

August 15, 2011 
edited October 4, 2014 (original)

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