Inevitability of Dystopia? Finding Sci-Fi Inspiration in the Stark Irony of Orwell versus Huxley.

If you want to build plausible dystopian fictional worlds, a useful habit may be to step away from social media for a few days at a time.

The old debate seems never-ending: was Orwell right, or will Huxley’s vision become reality? One answer is “yes”. It’s a question of timing.

Nation-states have attempted to control citizens since the beginning of centrally governed societies, but brute force inspires resistance. After World War II, mass psychological manipulation (the “pleasure principle”) delivered mainly via television became manifest in a phenomenon called “consumerism”. Here we trace a path from the birth of the Web to our present-day predicament.

Circa 1994, the World Wide Web arrived. Advertising morphed into banner ads, popup windows, and marketers’ new mantra: “information wants to be free“. What was once a resource for hackers and scientists became a tool for consumerism. Thus was born the Silicon Valley hype machine.

In the late 2000s, network effects shifted the Huxleyan engine into a higher gear. Facebook became omnipresent. Google became a monopoly. Social norms began to shift. At first people complained about oversharing and TMI. Soon everyone was playing the Internet popularity game, as Facebook surfaced relatives you wouldn’t bother to call and peers you barely remembered. Tumblr spurred GIF collecting as form of a mainstream meme culture; Twitter was for ranting at sympathetic strangers.

Silicon Valley’s confidence game hides in plain sight: free = surveillance. Every tweet and conversation is recorded, saved, bundled, sold.

“Building an internet where we didn’t have to pay for anything, because our attention was going to be the commodity that was traded, is one of the most destructive and shortsighted decisions that we could have made.” – Ethan Zuckerman

Social networks are broken. This man wants to fix them.

Circa 2011, another shift occurred. Web 2.0 meant that modern web pages became “asynchronous” — they send and receive data without needing you to refresh the page. This also means they can run programs and collect data without your knowledge or intervention.

Soon after his passing, Steve Jobs’ mythical legacy began. A generation of kids’ parents — and crucially, young girls — became convinced that they needed iPhones. By 2015, seventy-three percent of teens had access to a smartphone. Where young girls run, young boys follow; an entire generation of teenagers has been indocrinated into living through social media.

At the same time, nation-states commenced cyberwar.

In 2013, Edward Snowden released a cataclysmic cache of documents about government surveillance. Yet Facebook, Google and Twitter grew apace.

Between 2013 and 2016, government contractors and research-based firms like Strategic Communication Laboratories Group and Cambridge Analytica quietly amassed information on millions of Americans, mainly via Facebook and Internet advertising data.

The presidential campaign that led to victory in 2016 openly engaged in an information operation named Project Alamo. It wasn’t a political campaign as much as marketing and persuasion on a national scale. The campaign’s themes were emotional pushbuttons of the advertising industry: fear, greed, and narcissism. Invading our screens primarily through social media for the first time in history, we all witnessed a new evolution of the pleasure principle, designed to appeal solely to a specific demographic niche. Issues themselves were a sideshow. Every tweet and headline further polarised, multiplied and amplified the opinions of millions, yet rarely ever changed minds.

Orwell creeps back in: Project Alamo was well-known for using Facebook advertising to engage in several voter suppression attempts, mainly profiling and targeting young white liberals, young women, and African-Americans.

Instead of expanding the electorate, Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” says a senior official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans.

Inside the Trump Bunker, With Days to Go

Side note: the same groups that designed the Brexit campaign were also key architects of the winning 2016 American digital strategy.

2018: the current U.S. president has attempted several nationwide Muslim bans, and is using all possible means to deport Mexican-Americans. The current Department of Justice has decriminalised hate groups, oversees a boom in the private prison industry, threatens and harasses African-Americans, and menaces immigrants under the rhetorical pretenses of “law and order”, “pacifying gang violence” and “cracking down on drugs”.

From Day One of Trump’s campaign, he pushed heavily for a crackdown on undocumented immigration, and once in office, Trump ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ramp up its enforcement efforts.

For years, ICE has outsourced the bulk of its detention operations to the private sector.

Last year (2016), then-Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson followed the Justice Department’s footsteps by asking his department to look at its own use of private prisons. What resulted was a sweeping assessment of their use and an accounting that showed some 65% of people ICE detained were kept in for-profit facilities.

Private prison industry sees boon under Trump administration

The current occupier of the American White House is a known sexual predator, as are several members of his administration. He spent the entire 2016 campaign gaslighting and attempting gender-based shame tactics against his female opponent, using Twitter as his megaphone. “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing… Twitter for Mr. Trump. And Facebook for fundraising” said Trump’s digital director, Brad Parscale.

He is also in perpetual re-election mode. In addition to wielding personal social media data of over 240 million Americans, the former reality star and real-estate vulture bilionaire presently has powers of quasi-state media, immigration authorities, technologically sophisticated hate groups, police and military force at his disposal.

If you’re not white, male, Christian, and a sympathizer to Dictator 45 — now is the time to delete your Facebook account; cease using social media as a personal diary.

This is for all women, non-conservatives, Jews, African- and Asian-Americans, Latinos, and LGBT people.

Those with Native ancestry already know not to trust any American government or anyone who operates in its name. The same is true for Middle Eastern and South Americans. The future of U.S. and U.K. may in some ways be their alternative history.

Look a little way down the road and write the story before it happens.

Orwell and Huxley have now joined hands.

Huxley was right, and Orwell was right, in that order; but they’ve joined hands now, and the old dystopian vision is just the beginning.

Recent events involving AltSciFi — an informal group of artists and techies building an independent sci-fi zine project — show how old arguments about “Orwell verus Huxley” no longer even ask the right questions. It’s no longer rebellious artists versus the authorities, or the people versus The Government.

It’s now artists versus artists, and “the people” versus anything that isn’t a massive corporate brand.

This internalisation and weaponisation of opinion arises due to a noxous blend of narcissism, carelessness and gullibility that can be considered the dark triad of social media. Here our scope tightens from the international level to the scale of small groups, private individuals and independent artists.

Hostility to Self-Published Work, and Gratitude for Empty “Success”

Over the past three years, and especially this past year or so, you may have seen prototypes for an indie sci-fi project posted on Reddit.

It’s fascinating to see how essentially any self-published or independent work is downvoted and/or trolled, whereas Hollywood press releases are happily posted and received hundreds (or thousands) of upvotes.

Every now and then, someone comes to Reddit to thank “you guys” (as women are clearly nonexistent on Reddit) for helping them get reviews or sales on Amazon. But no one ever posts actual numbers. It’s almost like Reddit is a self-confirming echo chamber where you go for attention — then go back “thanking” people in order to get a second round of attention. The best echo chamber is a hollow one, as are most “success stories” posted there.

Irrelevance: How Frustrated Artists Become Copyright Cannibals

In the “attention economy” of social media, artists have fallen prey to two dynamics: the idea of “staying relevant”, and the urge to become mobs of pseudo-legalistic copyright trolls.

“Relevance” is a quasi-marketing term that describes artists’ obsession for keeping “top of mind” awareness in others. Do people think of you when they see pretty-yet-redundant Blade Runner 2049 fan art? Do they remember your username when you post cute new anime sketches on Twitter, or remind them about your painfully earnest Youtube art tutorials and struggling Patreon account?

In reality, “relevance” is meaningless for independent artists. It’s a marketing metric for celebrities and giant corporations that saturate multiple media (TV, radio, etc.) to gain “mindshare” using million-dollar ad campaigns.

On the Internet, we’ve been indoctrinated to become complicit in two parts of a confidence game: 1. Everything should be free; and 2. Attention is as good as payment.

1. In a capitalist world, nothing is free. “Information wants to be free” ultimately means the only people who make money are the biggest corporations that can survive with razor-thin profit margins. In other words, Amazon/Google/Apple/Facebook/Twitter create a de facto cartel that controls practically all consumer information flows across the planet. And literally any government or group that wants your personal data can easily buy it. Big Brother and Big Friend are now one and the same.

2. Attention doesn’t pay for bread on your table and a roof over your head. Artists live in a trap of their own creation: they react blindly against the idea of “working for exposure”, and then burn thousands of hours playing the social media game in order to stay “relevant” (in other words, throwing away time and effort in exchange for “exposure”).

The Dark Triad of Social Media: Narcissism, Carelessness, Gullibility

The “best” narcissists cultivate a carefully designed persona and use emotionally manipulative tactics to mobilise their followers. Rather than corruption and suppression from outside, this is corrosion and repression from within. Struggling artists frustrated by their own irrelevance can thereby “win” at social media by acting like copyright trolls; they “protect” their gullible flock against independent projects designed by artists, to help artists. This happened recently to the AltSciFi project.

Here’s the short version. See if you can spot the pattern:

Narcissism

“If there’s an opportunity to look good, get attention, to appear attractive and to gather followers, it’s going to draw narcissists,” Campbell says, “whether it’s politics, media or social media.”

One malevolent egomaniac didn’t like that her artwork was re-posted on Twitter with attribution, rather than retweeted as she preferred (her original tweet contained perhaps-racist wording that was probably unintentional). Instead of asking for a retweet, she tried to send a mob of her Twitter followers; that was denied by blocking her and anyone who tried to pile on in her “defense”.

So she waited for months until another artist on Twitter found our project, and thus was born a slander campaign about “stealing art” that nearly destroyed the project — before it was ever marketed or promoted to the public (outside of requests for feedback on Reddit).

The entire slander campaign centred on three or four pages on a Github test site that had functioning PayPal links — out of at least twelve pages. On Github (a site for web development and programming projects). That few outside of Reddit had probably ever seen. And we have no inventory to sell. We exist to help artists sell their work; that’s explicitly how our site is designed.

We even had a few links out of hundreds of Tumblr posts, and most of those didn’t even work yet. If you clicked on them, they literally didn’t work. The project has a few paying subscribers from Reddit (“thanks guys!”), but the project won’t be “profitable” for at least a few years based on subscription revenue.

We’re an informal group of artists and techies, obviously not some nefarious “art stealing” operation. But the very fine people of Twitter and Facebook ran a lovely slander campaign anyway, like a bunch of overcaffeinated, malignant tweens cosplaying a proper group of grown-up copyright trolls.

Carelessness

Everyone involved knew GitS2017 was an exercise in exclusion. Early special effects work was tested to make Scarlett Johannson look “Asian.”

The entire backstory of the main character, whose name is 草薙素子, was changed so that the original Japanese character was murdered and brain harvested to make a plausible excuse for the white actress’ “non-racial cyborg body”.

It sounds like a joke, right? Like someone decided 1920s Charlie Chan didn’t go far enough. It’s the 21st century. Add robots.

The main excuse racists made for Ghost in the Shell 2017 was “Japanese people like it” — intentionally ignoring Asian-Americans who are directly affected by Hollywood racism and exclusion.

Those few Japanese who said they liked GitS2017 were likely engaging in a form of politeness called “tatemae”, separation of acceptable public opinion and true private sentiment.

Until recently, a goal of AltSciFi was to amass artists and fans to fund and produce an independent, authentic Ghost in the Shell film. You can find several blog entries on AltSciFi WordPress that describe various scenarios in which we can make this happen.

In 2017, Hollywood released a bastardisation of Ghost in the Shell’s source material that whitewashed the main protagonist, who is Japanese. Perhaps in a moment of foreshadow, it was dismaying to see many artists on Twitter praising the 2017 film’s visuals while ignoring its blatant racism.

It was particularly harrowing to see one artist’s work on the film in particular. That artist will not be directly mentioned here; needless to say, their name will forever be attached to the $110 million Hollywood disaster that is now a hallmark in the Asian-American fight against racism.

Art and politics are intertwined. Asian-Americans made it clear that Ghost in the Shell 2017 was racist and wrong from the start. The artists involved turned a blind eye, and in doing so, chose racism. Now, which artists spread false social-media rumours about AltSciFi and made threats? Surprise! That Ghost in the Shell 2017 concept artist was one. Mister Moral Outrage.

The other artist, who began the Twitter rage-mob, has a beautiful and unique illustrative style (this is a mild overstatement: her approach combines loud colours, fashion sketches and video-game character design). Unfortunately, that style includes painting dark brown skin on anime characters who have stereotypically white features, and clothing them in Japanese-style kimono.

A pattern emerges. Yes, you’re right: the pattern is problematic source material that appropriates Asian imagery without regard for the culture itself.

The mob-starter’s excuse when confronted for believing and spreading false rumours was: “it’s your job to contact me. It’s not my job to check facts.”

Remember the malevolent egomaniac from a few paragraphs ago, the one spreading toxic gossp? Well, the easiest way to end a gossip campaign is to look for facts before making any conclusions. Instead, the gossip grew with each repetition, hardened and ossified into a bona fide art-stealing conspiracy theory.

So, no, darling, it’s always your job to check facts, known as “basic adult critical thinking.” Likewise, it’s always an artist’s job to research and talk to people of the ethnicities whom the artist wants to portray.

Gullibility

The combination of narcissism and carelessness is turned into a weapon by the average person’s gullibility. In the first incident, the sign of a toxic narcissist was the failed attempt to unleash a Twitter mob, followed by months spent licking a wounded ego while waiting for another opportunity. The telltale sign of a second narcissist was the willingness to immediately feign “abuse” (as you can read about here) when she obviously and embarrassingly didn’t even know what the terms mean. Her malleable and gullible Twitter followers were thus transformed into a mindless horde. It really is that easy for a narcissist to do — and far easier than focusing on creating great art that anyone actually wants to pay you for.

Now, one of her unfortunate followers even filed a spurious DMCA takedown notice, thereby exposing herself by lying in a publicly posted, legally binding document. That is the true dark side of this scenario and many similar ones: the malevolent egomaniac and toxic narcissist keep their hands clean, and their gullible social media “friend” (or sympathetic stranger) is placed in an unfortunate and precarious position.

This situation clarifies the reality that the AltSciFi project isn’t about social media popularity, indie artists’ profit margins or even a particular aesthetic (and definitely not Twitter-level anime art).

AltSciFi isn’t about “inclusion.” It’s about using science fiction to imagine a future where human beings are no longer excluded by racism, homophobia, religious hatred or xenophobic violence. And one in which egomaniacal narcissism, tribalistic gullibility and weaponised carelessness are no longer seen as a viable alternative to basic critical thinking.

All humans are human. Art is political. So is science fiction. And so is AltSciFi.

Information wants to be free, but…

The lesson in all this is that the core purposes of the Web have been inverted. “Information wants to be free” said Stewart Brand famously, but now, a handful of companies control practically all expression on the World Wide Web. Artists are now playing copyright troll against other artists. Fans are now either mouthpieces for giant entertainment companies, and/or gladly hand away their privacy and personal data to surveillance programs disguised as advertising. Meanwhile, everyone is desperately distracted by panhandling for Likes, Retweets, Reblogs and Upvotes.

This is the inevitability of dystopia, and it’s happening right now.

If you want to write plausible near-future fiction, here is a great place to start. Orwell and Huxley could never have imagined a reality in which the civilian population would so thoroughly internalise their own oppression and regurgitate it as entertainment.

Now ask yourself what role you play, and what you intend to do about it.

“Information wants to be free,” said Stewart Brand.

“…but your time should not,” replied Steve Wozniak.

Hologram Steve Jobs steps from the shadows of the afterlife to address throngs of fans and journalists at CES 2020. Faded blue jeans and black turtleneck appear as real as the whispered revolution that has obsessed the imaginations of all who eagerly await the fulfillment of their dreams.

You’ve seen the demo.” The inimitable voice of Hologram Jobs easily commands the world’s undivided attention, ghostly pale hand gesturing to a giant projection screen playing silently in the background. “Now, we’re bringing sci-fi to reality.”

A hush falls over the voices and minds of all who strain to hear each syllable in the standing room-only congregation.

The presentation is brief. Hologram Jobs has taken on the full strength of a messiah in post-corporeal form, looming over the audience, conjuring futuristic illusions in the auditorium’s resonant space. “The future begins now,” Jobs concludes, triumphantly holding the iPhone Air aloft. Its activated backlight leaves the crowd awash in pure white illumination as the holographic apparition dims in return to the enlightenment of nothingness.

Steve Wozniak rolls out on his Segway and stands in the front row, gathering the faithful. “My new iPhone Air is insanely great!” Woz proclaims, tugging the transparent rectangular slab from a worn-out old jeans pocket. Tapping ice-blue buttons, sliding fingertips across the slippery-smooth surface, the phone comes alive under the ancient wizard’s touch. “Jony says we’re going for holography in the iPhone 11s, and Tim wants to put them in your contact lenses.”

The enthralled crowd breathes in unison: “Revolutionary.” Online orders for the iPhone Air break all sales records.

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The real reason why most indie artists are starving: overcoming (and preventing) community drama as AltSciFi evolves.

Seriously, Artist Twitter? Are we going to do this every few months?

*sigh*

Okay.

This blog post exists as a point of reference in case similar situations arise in the future. A comprehensive blog post can be useful due to the appearance of behaviour patterns that are worth learning from (and not repeating).

Note that all parties involved are not personally named, and no personally identifying details are included here. AltSciFi protects your privacy, regardless of who you are or any relationship between us.

This post contains two parts: this part, and guidelines for the future, further down. You can read straight through or skip between them as you like. “Artists” referred to here also includes writers, and all independent creators in the science fiction genre. “Artist Twitter” refers to artists who are also heavy Twitter users, as you probably guessed already.

Fact and fabrication, gossip and misinterpretation

This post is dedicated to all the random Bored Artists and Angry Stans of Twitter who have arrived (again) to hunt witches and exercise their right to act like an mindless zombie mob.

Isn’t that what Twitter is for, though? Apparently so.

> the real reason artists r starving?! Bcos ur stealing it!1!!! #arttheft

— 300+ idiots on Twitter, in the space of a few hours.

Months ago, AltSciFi posted an image created by an artist. The image was tagged. “Tagging” means the artist’s Twitter username (“handle”) was included. The tag didn’t show properly, so a second tweet was added with the artist’s handle.

The only reason the artist (Artist A) knew her work was posted is that her handle was added (i.e. she was given credit). Twitter automatically notified her, which is the intended effect. It’s like saying, “hi, we re-tweeted/re-posted your work”.

That didn’t fit her personal specification, however. She soon demanded her full name be used. Fine, no problem there. But…

…instead of sending a DM (a private message on Twitter) and saying, “can you cite my name and/or contact details”, she quote-tweeted the image. Quote-tweets are like using quotation marks to tell your friends what someone else has said to you. She added nonsense about “stealing art” to her quote-tweet, and this triggered a mob from Artist Twitter screeching about “stolen work”.

This is how Twitter works…?

Artist Twitter seems to love this condescending bit about bragging “this is how Twitter works” then arbitrarily saying, “it must be as I demand”. Tagging an image cites the artist; no “stealing” involved.

Rather than argue for days with a zombified mob of people who weren’t reading (or thinking) before barking and howling, a massive number of people were blocked, including Artist A.

Fast-forward to now, literally months later. All was forgotten from the previous incident, or so it seemed. A notification arrives, including Artist A and Artist B. Artist A’s tweets were invisible (blocked), but clearly she’d been waiting for an opportunity to howl again.

Now we have Artist B. Her work is brilliant and unique. This is why it was included as one of the first around which a concept design was built for AltSciFi’s online store site.

The Opposite of Amazon

The essence of a store, obviously, is having items you pay for. AltSciFi is about helping indie artists get paid without corporations that gouge us like Amazon. So while building the site’s backend (database/etc.), a payment structure naturally needed to be built as well.

The key to this is AltSciFi does not have inventory of its own. The idea is to work with artists who have existing online shops, or help them create theirs.

This approach is something no one has done before (at least, perhaps not). That’s the whole point of doing it. In order to explain how it works, it’s better to use a “show, then tell” approach. Artists in particular are obsessively (rightly) wary of having their works stolen, so it’s necessary to paint a full picture before asking anyone to sign on.

Over the past few years, AltSciFi has tested prototypes and requested feedback. Artists and fans tend to fail to see value unless they have tangible work to lay hands on. There’s no point in giving an audience the first draft of a screenplay if you can show them the completed film. Likewise for the AltSciFi project.

How to Unleash the Undead Hordes…. by Mistake

Now, back to today. Artist B says she found the concept site via search engine. That was not independently verifiable, but there’s no reason to assume she was lying.

So what happens? Minutes later, yet another horde of frothing Angry Artist Twitter appears as if by magic.

A few pages on the concept site, including Artist B’s page, have functioning PayPal links. In theory, it’s possible to buy items. This is a proof of concept. It works. Finally. :)

In practice, as mentioned previously, there are no items to buy. No inventory. Plus, at least while using search engine DuckDuckGo, the concept site is nowhere to be found. But apparently Artist B found it somehow.

So here’s where the problem begins. Instead of contacting AltSciFi, Artist B replicated Artist A’s behaviour and sent a Frothing Twitter Horde of Doom.

Unfortunately, over the past few years of development, this is just the sort of thing that happens periodically. People don’t know what they’re looking at and sometimes decide doomsday is nigh. Instead of just blocking all who arrived with pitchforks at the ready, this is a thread (now, blog post) for the next time someone decides to bark instead of think.

Ironically, with proper demonstration of a completed project, Artist B probably would have thought this project could work well for her, as an indie artist with a unique style. Indeed, she backhandedly admitted exactly that.

Instead of reserving judgment, Artist B and the unthinking horde burned the bridge to AltSciFi before it could be built.

Mistakes Were Made, But More Importantly, Who Wins?

Was it a mistake to leave a “functioning” store site online? Yes. It was an oversight. The site is not being marketed or promoted and no one has tried to buy anything, so it was assumed to be invisible for now.

On the other hand, it’s also somewhat strange to unleash a bully-mob when you’ve only heard one side of what’s happening. In this case, Artist A clearly spewed nonsense about “art theft” when she had no clue, as she was blocked for months already.

AltSciFi is for artists and techies, by artists and techies. Our followers are constantly reminded of it.

As it is, apologies were offered several times to Artist B for the oversight. Artist B was too busy winning a fight. If you want a fight, well, okay. But you’re fighting against your own ally here. This is years of work spent, zero dollars for marketing or promotion.

Picking the Wrong Fight

If you want a fight, fight against the social media companies that create social norms around endlessly churning out work for free. Fight against the idea that artists (and techies/programmers/hackers) should give away their work for “exposure”.

Realise that if you’re using social media as your primary marketing platform — and even worse, if you’re using your personality as your “brand” — you’re throwing away your work and your identity to corporations who are selling you out to anyone who pays.

Squabbling about who tagged whom, forgot to add perfect citations, or didn’t email about a site that isn’t even finished yet…? That is fucking frustratingly stupid. It’s an understandable mistake. But gathering hordes and making sport of harassing people is fucking stupid.

We’re artists. Probably half of AltSciFi’s followers are hackers, makers, tinkerers and engineers (and others who Know Things). We’re weird. Some are outcasts. The urge to bully when given the chance may be strong. It’s still wrong, though, especially in this instance.

You Are Not Special, and Life is Too Short

This isn’t “damage control” or “artist management”. This is artists versus artists; the most pointless kind of conflict. No one wins. The strife created does the dirty work of keeping mega-corporations like Amazon as the only option. You’ll see more about exactly what that means in the set of guidelines below.

Next time someone gets chafed that AltSciFi blocked them, it’s because life is too short for bullshit — hours were wasted, today alone. Stop wasting time quibbling about bullshit. Find out the situation. instead of reacting (and feeding the social media machine), think and respond.

If you want a fight, a fight you might get. More likely, anyone who comes with more noise will be blocked and ignored. Explanation is usually a waste of time, especially for those whose minds are set to “off”.

A hard lesson learned over years: your ego is not special. Your work is not special. The world doesn’t need you or your art; that’s why it’s hard to get paid.

It’s also why AltSciFi exists. We need to build better alternatives. Allow yourself to make mistakes along the way.

This was a messy moment, but a necessary one. Better deal with misunderstandings now than fight endless brush fires later. “Move fast and break things” is how you end up with Facebook, after all (not a good idea; doing it right — not “perfectly” — is more important than doing it fast).

AltSciFi isn’t a business yet. We’re close, but doors have yet to open; until then, useful thoughts are welcome. Approach with an open mind, and receive the same in return.

Guidelines for Professionalism in the Attention Economy

Beyond the childish pettiness described above, here are a few thoughts on professionalism. These informal notes are based on experience and study, not about how to be a “superstar”. Key points are rephrased or repeated, and merit re-reading.

Never make accusations until you understand the situation at hand.

Anyone with a few thousand social media followers is a superstar in their own mind. AltSciFi maintains a small following; the “followback” game (where you follow someone in exchange for them to follow you, thereby increasing both users’ “popularity”) is silly.

For independent devs, infosec people and artists, Twitter is a “professional networking conference” where everyone is saving face while desperately looking for work.

Never rely on gossip or the insider voices of your comfortable little clique.

Do not use your work as a business card.

Pour energy into no more than four unpaid projects per month that add to your portfolio. Young artists and hackers especially fall into the trap of churning out new art and working themselves to the bone on open-source projects.

Resist “positive thinking”: thousands of indie creators give away their work. This creates an expectation that no one need ever pay for it. Remember: your style may be unique, but your ego and your art are not “special”. If your art is absent, someone else will step in and do the job. Welcome to capitalism.

Value your time and work. Do not give it away. Asking people to pay after giving work to them for free is like billing relatives for Christmas gifts.

Ignore social media popularity.

Followers can be bought. Bots and spammers accumulate. Twitter gets rich, indies stay broke. In the so-called “attention economy” of social media, if you’re an indie (sole proprietor/independent contractor), protect your time. Do not spend time on people who will waste it. The business model of social media is to seduce you into doing the work (organising and sharing information) while the social media company gets paid by running ads and selling your personal data.

Remain aware that the most important opportunities you lose may be the ones you never hear about. More about that in a moment.

“If you need the money, don’t take the job.”

Always have an alternative if negotiations fall through; never resort to begging or bullying. If potential colleagues or clients display tendencies to bully or abuse you and your time, gladly fire the client and find new workmates.

The inverse: be glad to discover unprofessional people who engage in gossip, whisper campaigns and backstabbing. Cut them all out at once.

Those who can help, elevate your work and be mentors, are already well aware of you.

Drama always reflects badly, even if you “win”. You will lose far more than you gain by bickering and squabbling with your peers. Those above you will assume you don’t have what it takes to join them. And until you learn to avoid or prevent drama, you will never know why you remain stuck near the bottom. Those at a higher level will never waste their time on you.

Inverse: if your industry worships “superstars”, be ready to defend yourself. Bullies and hardline negotiators steamroll over anyone they perceive as weak.

Four caveats:

0. Do not act based on gossip or incomplete information. Never request secondhand facts if a firsthand source is accessible. If there are two sides to a story, listen to both.
1. Immediately apologise for mistakes and fix them as quickly as possible.
2. Walk away even if you can “win”.
3. Never make an enemy due to a bruised ego.

That’s all for now. These are exciting and interesting times for AltSciFi, but when has that ever not been the case? :)

P.S. One more guideline for time management and emotional wellbeing: never engage with those who deliberately misinterpret your words.

P.P.S. This isn’t “damage control” or “artist management”. This is a signpost, and a warning for every artist dealing with others online. You will probably encounter similar behaviour if you decide to do anything that challenges the status quo. People can rarely imagine beyond what they already know, and nearly always fear that which is foreign to them. Artists are not exempt from herd thinking or acting like childish bullies; open-mindedness often stops where social interactions begin.

Beyond that, hopefully you’ve learned something you can use in your professional, and perhaps even personal, life and evolution.

And if you’re new here, welcome to AltSciFi. This is as good an introduction as any. :)

Update: this post now has a second part (click here).

Are You A First Class User or Second Class Loser? Hidden Dangers of Social Media De-anonymization.

Hey friends. I’m going to wax geeky and talk about personal online security for Twitter users for a moment, because it’s important.

The following text is derived from a talk given by Shaula Evans, and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Twitter recently announced that everyone can get a blue verified checkmark if you “just” turn over some personal data. Turning over your personal details to Twitter is a Faustian bargain. (Correction: From what I’m reading today, sounds like the change is that everyone can apply for verification, but may not be accepted.)

Twitter wants your government ID in order to verify your account. THIS IS A BAD IDEA. Verified IDs cause two sets of problems.

Verified ID Problem #1: People naively assume removing anonymity solves trolling. It doesn’t.

Trump/Brexit have emboldened people to to stop hiding their bigotry. “Real name” policies provide the illusion of a solution, but it doesn’t work.

Know what DOES address online harassment?

1. Clear guidelines
2. Commitment to enforce them
3. Timely enforcement (Not twelve hours. Or two years.)

I say that speaking from experience. I build and consult on building healthy, inclusive online communities. It is possible, but it takes will and work. Verified ID’s aren’t a solution. They are window dressing. They are shuffling deck chairs.

Verified ID Problem #2: Verified IDs are dangerous for vulnerable people.

Here is a great write up from geekfeminism‘s wiki on who is harmed by real name policies. Read it.…

– You didn’t think about the harm real names can do because you’re not affected? Neither did Twitter. That’s why we need diverse teams.

– You didn’t think about the harm real names can do and you ARE someone who can be harmed? Twitter just endangered you.

Twitter has gamified the verification process (turn over your data to access more features like the big kids!) without disclosing risks. People who aren’t tech- or security minded are going to jump in (we can’t all be experts in everything) and GET HURT. This is awful.

The previous two verification problems create a third: a two-tiered user community.

People with enough social privilege to use verification safely become “first class” users with extra benefits and prestige. Vulnerable people become “second class”.

That is disgusting, offensive, and grotesque. That is terrible product design. That is myopic design from non-diverse teams. If you say “a real name policy doesn’t hurt me, I’ll do it”, you are now part of the further marginalization of vulnerable people on Twitter, too. I don’t know if you have a problem with getting special privileges by supporting systems that hurt others, but I do.

Two more points about specific problems with Twitter’s verification process.

1. Twitter wants us all to use profile and/or header photos that reflect “the person, the corporation’s branding, or the company’s branding.”

Let’s talk about what it’s like to use the Internet while perceived as anyone other than a white male. If you have a “female” avatar, you get more abuse. If you are a woman of color, it’s even worse. These are not state secrets. The data is out there. Anyone who works in tech and knows their arse from their elbow knows this stuff.

Twitter has effectively said: “We want credit for fixing abuse. So we’re going to encourage you to take steps to increase your abuse.”

2. Twitter wants to know your birth date.

Twitter then gives you fancy graphics on your birthday in return (gamification!). Know who else wants your birth date? Identity thieves.

Oh yeah, and doxxers. Your birth date is incredibly helpful to people who want to dox you, too.

Who gets doxed? Oddly enough, the list looks an awful lot like the list of people who are harmed by real name policies. You might want to think about that before you plug your birthday into a site that publicizes it. Or before you send a birthday wish a friend on social media.

In summary: Twitter’s new “soft” real names policy will hurt people, create a two-tiered community, and make trolling worse. Hurray!

Recommendations:

1. Don’t get verified.
If you have verified your account rashly and realize it may put you at risk, contact Twitter right away and get it undone, fast.

2. Don’t let your friends get verified.
If you have friends on Twitter who would be made vulnerable by ID verification, make sure they know the risks. Take care of each other.

3. Tell twitter why you are taking this course of action.

I know: it’s really hard to resist the gamified urge to get the coveted blue check, hard to be skeptical, hard to be a rational adult, hard to be objective, hard to perform due diligence, hard to think of others. So much easier to chase the dopamine rush of gratification.

There are bigger things in life than a blue checkmark, I promise you. Resist the urge, take care of yourself and each other, and stay safe.

P.S. We need to call out the tech press on this. The usual suspects are printing fawning regurgitation of Twitter press release, zero critique. Cutting/pasting press releases (or tweets) does not constitute journalism. We need a robust Fourth Estate more than ever. Pull up your socks.

P.P.S. Read about NYMWARS. No one learned. Deficient knowledge transfer in tech is a huge problem. It astounds me that Google went through the whole Nymwars thing going back to 2011 and the industry seems to have learned nothing. We really shouldn’t be working out these issues from scratch on every single platform.

October 2015 May Be a Quiet Month for AltSciFi. Here’s Why.

After the Patreon hack was disclosed (Patreon’s database and source code where stolen), it seemed like a good time to change passwords. This included the password for AltSciFi’s Twitter account.

Naturally, after changing the password this morning, it became impossible to log in. Any further changes would have to be verified using a “password reset request” sent to email.

The email account at mail.com that was the address on file at Twitter is now blocked because of “suspicious” or “automated” behaviour. In other words, the email is locked due to use of Tor (Tor is a program that helps you stay a bit more safely anonymous online). Anonymity also enables “cybercriminals” to make mischief, so many services block Tor indiscriminately. Of course, that sloppy catch-all blocking solution also denies access to many people who simply want to stay safe while browsing the Web.

Also, Twitter apparently does not offer real support in any way, via Tweets or email — “real” as in a real human being.

Hence, all attempts at contacting Twitter result in autoresponses that redirect the user back to a password reset form. The form sends a message to the email address that you have on file with Twitter.

What does that add up to, then?

October 2015 may be a quiet month for AltSciFi unless mail.com unlocks our email account.

It’s ultimately a good thing, though, in some ways. Here are some cautionary notes in case you want to start a community on Twitter.

1. Maintaining AltSciFi’s Twitter account was becoming unexpectedly time-consuming

Sifting for new material had grown to take up to three hours daily. It was an experiment in using Twitter to build an audience, and we were earning about one new subscriber per day as a reward for time spent.

The key in “curating” content online is that the real skill is invisible. It’s not what you include that matters most. The pieces that you don’t include give your Twitter account its distinctive tone and style.

The problem there is that most people don’t notice the absence of noise. Therefore, the value of tight focus and carefully selected content can be easy to miss or ignore. That’s a problem when your ultimate goal is to ask people to pay for the hours it takes to find high-quality information in a sea of nondescript Internet chatter.

It may be far more effective to create and upload original material for Twitter to devour, rather than painstaking shape the data that’s already there. Unless you have a knack for dumb-yet-funny jokes, or you’re an unusually pretty woman with a magnetically narcissistic personality (or lots of cleavage-baring selfies at least), Twitter is a very slow, time-intensive way to create a community.

2. The Twitter stats are either misleading or almost completely meaningless.

Statistics gathered by Twitter fall into two main categories:

1. Followers: “follow” is creepy Twitter jargon for “subscribe”, and “followers” are the stalker-lingo equivalent of “subscribers”.

Many Twitter denizens conform to the label, too. Most subscribers offer little response or input aside from their silent presence as an addition to your voluntarily voiceless army of Followers.

2. Impressions: an “impression” on Twitter is the moment when a user is shown one of your tweets. They don’t actually have to do anything in particular aside from (perhaps) see the tweet. Even though AltSciFi was averaging over 30,000 “impressions” per month, only one or two people would click through to read blog entries or look at the prototypes for our zine.

Lesson: impressions are nothing like page-hits across the rest of the Web. The have almost no value in terms of gauging your digital reach or popularity.

The Not-So-Holy Grail of Social Media

For many Twitter users, a high Follower count is akin to the Holy Grail of Social Media: at all times, you must increase your number of Followers. From experience, though, Twitter gladly obliges by failing to curb the rampant proliferation of spambots roaming free.

Spambots are accounts that are not run directly by humans. Instead, spambots are semi-autonomous programs unleashed into the wild, untamed environs of the Twitterverse where they attach, Succubus-like, to any account that seems viable, selling sex via nubile young webcam girls or shilling for shady Internet marketing schemes.

Perhaps the number of impressions was also being boosted by spambots as well. Taken together, Followers and Impressions can be eye-poppingly large numbers that add up to nearly zero.

Our Next Mutation

AltSciFi has been through over two years of continual cataclysmic evolution.

We started out as a reaction to shoddy community moderation on Reddit, calling ourselves “AllSciFi”. Then Reddit shut the AllSciFi subreddit down for “spamming” when we sent invitations to other users (there’s no discovery mechanism on Reddit, so messaging people by hand was the only option if we wanted to grow).

From there, we became “AltSciFi” and spread to Twitter, WordPress and Tumblr so that we could never be completely shut down.

This little hiccup of being locked out of Twitter has one major upside: three hours are now free every day for doing what matters most — creating new indie science fiction.

Maybe we’ll get our Twitter account back. The zine prototypes here on WordPress are still improving and will likely continue. We’ve faced setbacks before and they turn out to be blessings in disguise. So we’ll see about the next steps for AltSciFi. Stay tuned.

A Leap on the Sci-Fi Social Web: Ethical Indie Transition From Internet Exposure to Real-World Payment

On Twitter, there’s quite a fuss made about sharing other peoples’ art and ideas in exchange for Internet Points. These Internet Points come in the form of people re-sharing your “work” to others, and so on. The more your tweets are shared, the more you’re known and the more followers you’ll accrue. A bottomless craving for popularity, no matter how insubstantial, is the fuel that propels the “viral” nature of sharing via Twitter.

It’s the same across the Social Web — Reddit Upvotes, Facebooks Likes, Tumblr Notes, etc. The so-called “gamification” of the Internet can be addictive, even though it amounts to nothing of any material value in the real world. Anyone can become a star during the interval that their Twitter feed or Facebook timeline lights up with illusory ego validation.

The word for all this social gaming, by the way, is “curating”. It was even a fad on résumés for a while: “social media curation” as a special skill, not unlike the “skill” of using search engines to find things in the early days of the Internet.

“Curating” seems like such a non-activity as to be a non-issue, until you start counting the minutes as they irreversibly pass into the waiting hands of Eternity. If done even marginally well, the deceptively lightweight gruntwork of curating quietly becomes a time-consuming, attention-stealing task.

Content creation is one of the many tasks that people used to be paid for, and that social networks now offload onto their users. This offloading of effort is exchanged for ad-driven “free” services, bundled with the all-important promise of accumulated Internet Points and imaginary self-esteem.

The larger question for AltSciFi is: how to grow without becoming a typical “Internet Community” of random opinions, often descending into trollbait and flamewars?

Maybe staying small is the way. It seems paradoxical at first. Shouldn’t we be trying to go massively viral like everyone else?

According to Twitter’s analytics, we’ve had 33,900 impressions (page views) over the last twenty-eight days. That’s quite a lot for only ninety-five followers (members/subscribers). Here’s a hard-won truth that no Internet marketer will tell you: Twitter stats and social media metrics overall (Likes, Favorites, reblogs/retweets, etc.) are meaningless, much like paying an artist in “exposure” rather than money.

Our next step: channel artistry and technology through AltSciFi — not as an eternally thirsty “middleman” hunting for ever-higher margins, but as a home for high-quality indie science fiction and art.

Work has begun on the AltSciFi zine; prototyping on paper, then with a bit of code, and now becoming a more complex database-driven system. (You saw one of the prototypes posted here a couple of weeks ago. Go back a bit and you’ll see it.) There’s a tough balance to strike between wanting to create original art, music and fiction — and a larger goal of helping everyone’s work be seen.

None of this is altruistic. It’s all quite selfish, really. We’re all swimming in the same pond, you know. Thanks for choosing our little lily pad.

P.S. Oh, and yes — we don’t want you to be seen and heard, we want you to be loved and paid (love is optional; payment is essential). Again, selfish. ;)

Welcome to ethical capitalism. It’s a new idea, enabled by those of us who were born on the Internet. Seems to be worth a try, so come and participate with us. We may accomplish something that’s never been done.