Will Instagram’s New Anti-Abuse Tool Eradicate Social Media Democracy Forever?


In the aftermath of the Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s feud with Taylor Swift, over whether or not Swift gave West permission to use the lyrics “I made that bitch famous” in his song, Famous (if there is anyone interested to hear more or my thoughts on this, listen to the latest PanDolly podcast), a curious thing began happening to Taylor Swift’s Instagram page. To quote Glamour.com and its inimitable way: “Guys, there’s a LOT happening with Taylor Swift right now.” Like something out of a Samuel L. Jackson film gone wrong (or right), green emoji snakes descended upon the comment section of each and every one of Taylor’s pictures, in a pro-Kim show of hands, after the Kardashian tweeted a bunch of them in an oblique reference to Taylor. Lines and lines of snakes piled up, as over-zealous commentators waded in, pictorially, to let Taylor know that she was a ‘snake’, not worth believing. Then something stranger still, occurred. Those snakes began to disappear. En masse.

When I read a tiny news segment on the front of The Sunday Times about Instagram handing the keys to a revolutionary new anti-abuse tool to Taylor Swift to debut, I understood where all those snakes had gawn. This tool allows Taylor – and other high-profile celebrities who have not yet been revealed – to delete negative threads, all at once. I tweeted this news update, of sorts – and curiously, it became my most retweeted tweet ever. Is that because we’re all obsessed with Taylor Swift? Possibly. But it’s more likely because we are obsessed with social media. If proof of this were needed – this story made the front page of a paper where the front page space is typically occupied with politics and terrorism.

We are obsessed with the idea that everyone deserves a voice. That everyone deserves to comment. We live in a time of constant, exhaustive, noisy, commentary. And the thought of this ‘public service’ disappearing, is controversial.

FREE SPEECH. Some shall yell. FREE SPEECH. Like that isn’t also a phrase that has become more commonly associated with sexism and racism than it has with a suppressed people being given the right to speak.

I have had a tiny, tiny taste of it. The very tiniest taste. But imagine being Taylor Swift. Imagine being embroiled in some global public feud where millions of people are scatter-gunning their personal hatred for you (can you hate someone if you don’t know them? Answers on a tweet) over your phone. “She asks for it”, “she’s in the public eye”, or, as Heat magazine put it, she’s a ‘special snowflake’. But doesn’t this completely disregard the subtext of cyber-bullying and further indulge the odd idea that celebrities are avatars with no real emotional responses? We assume ownership of celebrities – enough to comment on their Instagram pictures with any kind of passion – but then demand that they respond with grace and humility.

In this very same week, theres been another strange thing happening: celebrities using have begun using social media to relay genuine feelings. FEELINGS. Kim’s oddly-cut Snapchat video of Kanye and Taylor having a phone conversation about Famous is an emotionally-fuelled defence of her husband. Taylor’s note, posted on Instagram in the aftermath (and latterly dissected to within an inch of its life) flew in the face of a tightly-managed industry, where celebrities typically refuse to comment on anything negative. In the last celebrity interview I did, there were three tape recorders recording my interview for posterity, lest I should misquote. “No questions about XYZ” we’re often told. But via note-form, Taylor commented on the very thing the baying public wanted to read about. The juice. The gossip. With her Snapchat video, Kim also fed the thirst for truth. They aren’t the only ones, either. Last week, Selena Gomez, the only human with more followers than Taylor Swift, shared a slightly muddled note (it’s all about the Notes, ICYMI) explaining that something felt ‘off’ in her performance, and she needed to go find some authenticity.

This shift is exciting, sure. Interesting, definitely. But also indicative that social media has become a beast too untenable to handle. I’m not sure if anyone else has seen Stranger Things (WATCH IT – it’s on Netflix and Winona is sublime) but in my mind, I equate it to that. In order to not to be eaten alive – by snake emojis or otherwise – celebrities find themselves man-handling it as a direct vehicle of speech. No longer is Instagram about the imagery. It is about the captions and when they are not enough, the Notes. To see social media used as a vehicle for truth (or more accurately, versions of truths) feels, at this point, revolutionary.

But it is also the first sign that Instagram has a sell-by-date.

I am often asked, as someone with a modest following (1/870th of Taylor’s, incidentally) what I would do if Instagram imploded. “Carry on with my job” I reply, bemused. And anyway, I further, everyone’ll move on to something else at some point. They always do. Now is the that time to wonder if that has come: if Instagram has imploded. Why? Because it has gone against it’s basic tenet of democracy, whereby everyone is given a voice. In giving Taylor Swift a tool which automatically, en masse, deletes abuse, Instagram knows this. Because Swift won’t be the last person they hand this tool to. Phones will be ringing off the hook off Instagram HQ, as publicists demand the same tool, for their famous clients. It will be like when Google offered to delete your history and were pummelled with responses.

This tool will alter social media and our cultural relationship with it, forever. No longer will Instagram be a democratic place where everyone has a voice. The voice will become diluted. Filtered.

So. Gird your loins. Is this actually a bad thing? And more importantly, did they have any choice? Swift is the second most popular user on Instagram, with over 87 million followers. As the big cheese in a square-by-square world, there will have been huge pressure on Instagram to respond to the snake-pit Taylor found herself in. There is a responsibility at play here. And not just because many of these celebrities – Swift, Gomez, Bieber – are young, which they are. But because online abuse is at its apex. We are all familiar with school kids killing themselves after cyber-bullying become over-whelming. Yet here we are, watching as a young woman drowns under a weight of cartoon snakes which whilst innocent in their appearance, carry the weight of public aggression.

Instagram et al, gave us a voice. But a democracy cannot exist without a fair people. We made Instagram the public service that we wanted it to be. And now, perhaps, we have destroyed it.

Ph. credit giojam.com and glamour.com

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