For the past four months, I have been locked out of my personal Twitter account. This punishment was for the crime of answering a friend’s question about music with the name of one of my favorite bands. This is not an exaggeration.
Back in December, a friend spent some time talking up John Mayer’s stint with the most recent touring version of the Grateful Dead and was marveling at his musicianship. In the midst of this euphoric posting, he gave the prompt “Actually name a band John Mayer couldn’t improve I DEFY you”. Without considering the merits of Mayer’s guitar-playing skills, I took the question seriously and gave a one word answer. This was the band.
Now, I know many people have different opinions about John Mayer, the majority of them dependent on when they first encountered his music or last paid attention to his career. Personally, I remember him from his debut album, which was filled with chords you normally only hear in jazz band (a plus from this guy who played guitar in jazz band!) that supported decent soft pop-rock songs (a plus for my sister who actually bought the album and played it a lot more than I preferred). In other words, I never was a big fan of Mayer, but it never was an opinion that was set in stone. Over the years I’ve read interviews from musicians I respect who praise Mayer’s skills, so my assessment these days whenever I see his name is more along the lines of “good for him, but not sure I’ll check out the new album.”
In other words, my answer was not given because of any animus towards the man; quite the contrary. It was a serious and thoughtful response to the prompt, and I would argue the definitive correct answer. Suicide was a landmark punk band from the 1970s, and their music could not be farther from John Mayer’s normal work. Suicide was an aggressively confrontational group, who gave no thought to alienating their audience at their live performances. Suicide’s music was harsh, minimalist, and repetitive; in other words, not a match for John Mayer’s ostentatious and pyrotechnic noodling. The point was to reduce music to its most primitive level, relying on artificial sound from early synthesizers and drum machines. The addition of a guitar to this would in and of itself defeat the point of the band. And to further distinguish themselves from other good answers like Kraftwerk, Suicide was always a duo, with Alan Vega and Martin Rev being the sole members of their decades-long run. In this case, three’s definitely a crowd.
So, what’s the controversy? For a few hours, there was none. In fact, my friend responded to my answer in good fun, with “You know he’d bring them to a whole nother level” [sic]. Nobody seemed bothered by it, but later that night I open up Twitter on my phone, and I can’t load up my Timeline. Apparently at some point that evening, either somebody reported the tweet (unlikely) or it was auto-flagged by Twitter itself.
And that’s when I began my battle with Twitter’s totally non-responsive bureaucracy.
In the big block of text preventing me from accessing my account, there’s a link to an appeals form. I fill it out, expecting it to be a quick fix. Surely a brief explanation with a handy link to Suicide’s Wikipedia page will fix the matter!
I kept receiving generic “we’ve received your request and will process it as soon as we can” responses, and kept filling out responses with lengthier and lengthier explanations. At first, I was understanding–it’s not like everyone is familiar with the work of old punk bands, especially if the people handling content moderation are either not from this country or are younger than say 30. But after multiple attempts, it seemed nobody at Twitter wanted to believe that a band whose debut was twice ranked one of the 500 greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone actually existed.
A couple of days into the process, I was fed up. I understand the band is somewhat obscure, but how obscure are they really when they figure into the plot of an independent Greek film? (Quick note: the actor in that scene is the writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Favorite”, “The Lobster”, “Dogtooth”)). How unknown is the band when they’re mentioned in the reviews of albums by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Flaming Lips, when they’re name-checked by LCD Soundsystem (skip to 3:06), sampled by artists like M.I.A., and when they’re covered by The Boss?
[Fun fact: Bruce Springsteen was next door recording his own stuff when Suicide was in the studio recording their second album. He loved the band, and noted their influence on his classic album Nebraska]
One might be tempted to characterize Twitter’s response as Orwellian or Kafkaesque, but those terms don’t really fit–though this classic Kafka doodle characterizes my reaction. Apparently most authors never really considered the possibility of a completely unaccountable power, one that is immune to any complaint whatsoever because they can simply ignore them forever without consequence.
Amid the generic responses, there was a single actual reply. Apparently my case was reviewed and it was determined…I violated the rules “against promoting or encouraging suicide or self-harm.” Apparently not only are the people of Twitter culturally illiterate, but they’re just plain old illiterate! By simply reading the prompt and response, there is no way to interpret my tweet as a “threat”, at least if you want to follow the basic rules of grammar. It would take ridiculous leaps of logic to conclude that my response could be viewed as a threat, and that’s only if you decided to read it without knowing how English worked in any way whatsoever.
Now, this incident in and of itself is deeply silly, but it points to a more serious problem with how Twitter functions in general. Despite the ample evidence shown to the contrary, and because they chose to ignore all context to the discussion, had Twitter decided that the mere MENTION of “suicide” was a suspension-worthy offense? It’s the precedent of this incident that truly matters.
Would it now be forbidden to discuss the Eugenides novel/Sofia Coppola film/Air soundtrack to “The Virgin Suicides” in any capacity? That’s tough, because two of those three are favorites of mine as well (I will get around to reading the novel at some point, I promise). Could I also not discuss Pom Pom Squad’s song “Lux”, which is a reference to the story? Hell, would I be able to mention the fact that the album references an incident that also inspired the landmark experimental documentary “Landscape Suicide”? It sure seems like all these mentions would invite a suspension. It’s too bad, because the album rules (and will figure prominently in our Best of 2021 rundown).
Let’s keep this going. Will we now be forbidden to discuss the song about all that guy really wanted was a Pepsi?
Or how about the song about how much the singer loves his dog?
How about mentioning the name of the theme to the most popular TV show of all-time? I’m guessing that’s out of bounds now too.
I know it sounds like I’m exaggerating, but it’s all on the table because according to Twitter, context does not matter at all! It doesn’t even rise to the level of “nuance” in this case, and that is a serious problem.
The cherry on top of this shit sundae is that the week before my suspension, Twitter was full of jokes about ACTUAL SUICIDE PODS. That’s right, news came from Switzerland about a new assisted-suicide machine, and it prompted tons of jokes on my timeline. I did not join in, but I also didn’t report anybody, because that would be ridiculous. Some of the jokes were even good.
What might be the most remarkable aspect of Twitter’s punishment of my account is the fact that it is a secret. None of my followers would know about my suspension unless I’ve personally told them, because Twitter has not posted any warning on my page. All of my friends look at my profile, and they just see a guy who suddenly stopped posting (well, let’s face it, retweeting) back in late December. This led to multiple friends tweeting out “What’s up with @[me]?” I was able to see glimpses of this, because I was still able to view a line or two from my phone notifications. Could I see any more of the tweet, or perhaps yet respond? No. Even better, I received a few direct messages from friends checking up on me, because by all appearances I had fallen off the face of the Earth. I was only able to know about these DMs because I still got an email notification. Again, could I respond? Of fucking course not. I had to instruct a friend to relay the fact that yes, I still am alive, to those folks who reached out to me.
[As a proof of life to my followers: I told you Lil’ Penny was good, we’ll miss you 3J but you’re going to enjoy my original home, and hopefully Thrillard comes back this fall fully healthy and ready to kick ass]
There really is a wonderful irony to the fact that Twitter’s heavy-handed response was supposedly justified by their concern for the health of its users, but their shitty behavior in fact prompted deep concern from many of its users about my health.
Is there a way to escape this bureaucratic nightmare? There seems to be one. Though Twitter keeps giving me the option of filing appeals that they never intend on viewing, they also say if I choose to drop my appeal (which still is being decided after four months???), I can be reinstated. They’re not even asking me to delete the tweet–they already did that for me [if you go to the tweet in question, they note that it violated their standards]. They simply want me to confess in this ridiculous Soviet show trial of a process, and frankly, I’m better than that. Twitter is too ridiculous for me to abandon basic principles, like that punk rock rules or that the name of a band from 50 years ago is too controversial to mention. Again, a name that is so dangerous that mere exposure should provoke terror in those who see the word, and yet one of the members is still alive and the other died in his sleep at the age of 78. Yup, that dangerous.
So at the moment I’m going to keep holding out and hope that somebody, literally anybody, at Twitter comes to their senses. Because seriously, fuck these assholes for making me agree with the Worst People on the Planet in believing that they are incapable of monitoring themselves to any degree whatsoever. And goddammit, somebody should have to answer for that crime.