It's been a pretty horrifying couple of weeks on Twitter, hasn't it? At least it has on my timeline. Two unrelated, awful events in particular came right on top of each other, each whipping up a social media storm. First the violent incursion of militarised police into peaceful democratic protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Second the eruption of sickening misogyny and violent threats directed at female game makers and games journalists, in particular Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn.
In both cases, my Twitter stream did what it always does. First came the reports from those directly affected, amplified and retweeted by other journalists. Fear, indignation, outrage, disbelief, heartbreak. Then came the wave of initial commentary. What does this mean, why now, how did things get like this. Then came the meta-commentary. Actually things have always been like this, privilege blinkers those not directly affected, look how existing power structures even suppress discussion, which sources can we really trust.
Endless echoes in endless voices of an event, now refracted in endless dizzying facets and meta-facets and ironic subtweets.
It was in the midst of thinking this, and my own feelings of helpless-but-mustn’t-look-away, that I encountered Glitch Pigeon, a little prototype crafted by Hannah Nicklin and George Buckenham at the Oxford Playhouse.
Glitch Pigeon presents the transient flurry of a Twitter stream from a completely different perspective. That of a glitched-out pigeon thing, living off the (real) messages of city folk who are playing out their lives unseen.
You, as the Pigeon, step around the streets, flap noisily into the sky, and occasionally coo at your organic pigeon friends. Mainly, though, you seek out and consume tweets and SMSs which randomly appear in the sky.
I played Glitch Pigeon late one night when sleeplessness had led me to Twitter, which in turn had left me feeling disoriented and a bit miserable and powerless. Observing injustice unfolding through the scrolling messages before me, but unable to touch or help. Then, in the game, I found yet more messages flying past, but this time borne by a quiet breeze. These echoes, now separated from their causes and context, flutter down in isolation, like the autumn leaves which also drift and swirl. Each one is a single thought (less than 140 characters), encountered, considered and pecked-at by an indifferent electric scavenger. I wondered if they were lost messages, the sender awaiting a reply that would never come, or if they had already reached their destination, and were now read and discarded. I wondered if the Glitch Pigeon understood what it was consuming, if it thought of the stories whose offcuts kept it moving.
Grey shadows of the boundless city, from where these discarded thoughts come fluttering, recede into the distance, but the pigeons are unconcerned, strutting on the curbside and launching themselves up through the leaves. While they hunt for scraps of discarded food from those that dwell in the city, I, the Glitch, search out moments of concern ("Ok am on train too. Are you ok?"), throwaway life fragments ("Friday dinner works for me. When's a good time?") and even the mechanical voices of other bots which share the same space, which now flutter down like ashes from an inferno of text in a parallel world.
So Glitch Pigeon is a small thing, but it found me at just the right time to make me think about how and why I read about the lives of people I’ve never met.
Those events I mentioned at the top are important to understand. Even the second one, which might sound like Internet drama only affecting a small number of people, is symptomatic of a wider problem which is insidious and pervasive. It's important, if you want to grow and mature as a person, to be exposed to the dark sides of humanity, and to educate yourself about the experience of others. This goes double in those cases where your privilege (be you white, male, cis) shields you from being affected first-hand.
Maybe Twitter is a good way to do this. I've found it an ideal forum in which to listen and learn. That's why I'm not speaking about the events themselves: you're far better off reading the accounts of those involved, those who, unlike me, know what they're talking about. But even just listening, sometimes the tweets come so fast and loud that it's hard to take a perch and process. In this case, sometimes it helps to see the tweets and messages after they're read, pecked up and reused for a different purpose.