June 15, 2021

Inside the Clock Tower: An Interoperability Story

Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and journalist.

Editor’s note: Last week, the House Judiciary Committee introduced a package of bills to address concerns with the market power exerted by large online platforms. One of these is the ACCESS Act. It would mandate interoperability for large online platforms, meaning, in part, that a consumer could still connect with her friends through Facebook even if she moved to another social media platform and deleted her own Facebook account.

It can be difficult to visualize all the ways a concept like interoperability really matters. So we asked Cory Doctorow for a piece of short fiction to explore how the online world might evolve with interoperability. Doctorow is a master of speculative tech fiction who has published a bookshelf’s worth of novels and nonfiction works, as well as a technology activist and a special advisor to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit civil liberties group.

In addition to contributing this short story, Doctorow discussed what interoperability would mean for online communities with CR’s Kaveh Waddell.

Inside the Clock Tower

 

clocktower-twitter

Illustration: Jason Schneider

When Nur found the Gotham Clock Tower, it was like she’d finally discovered a home for herself online. The years she’d spent in the trenches on Main Twitter, enduring terrible men who hated her for the sin of turning X23 into a massive comics franchise were behind her. She’d once thought that the hardest thing she would ever do is transform a joke of a character—basically “Girl-Wolverine”—into a bestselling title, but the adversity that had entailed was nothing compared to the endless, toxic inventiveness of men who hated everything about her, from her writing to her body, her Palestinian heritage to her haircut.

Main Twitter hadn’t made it easy. Sure, MT had tons of anti-harassment rules and a huge force of moderators you could petition when someone broke them, but Awful Comics Dude Twitter had figured out all kinds of clever ways to beat that. Like, they would send her a DM that was jaw-droppingly vile, rapey and worse than rapey, and then, once she’d seen it—and they’d seen Twitter’s read-receipt—they’d delete it. Afterwards, they’d brigade her in her public mentions, hitting her with comments that were innocuous on their face, but, considered in light of that mind-searing, deleted DM, were pure triggers.

Awful Comics Dude Twitter knew that Main Twitter wouldn’t accept screenshots of deleted tweets in harassment complaints (if MT allowed this, ACD Twitter would have endlessly entertained itself by forging incriminating tweets from its victims, getting them kicked off the platform). They also knew that Main Twitter couldn’t retrieve deleted DMs, but then everyone knew that, ever since the US Department of Justice had sued them to force them to undelete messages sent between a couple of terror suspects who were said to have had a role in the Disneyland bombings and they’d proved that they had actually designed a system that completely, unerasably deleted your private messages when you did.

Everyone was angry at Main Twitter about that for ten seconds there, and the DoJ threatened to drag it into court, but then came the Riyadh uprising and the big Main Twitter hack, and Main Twitter had been able to announce proudly that thanks to their deletion policies, the secret police from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice had not been able to uncover the identities of the radicals who’d participated in it. So then Main Twitter looked like human rights superheroes, and the FTC looked like a bunch of geniuses for backing MT’s refusal to interoperate with the Saudi Royals’ baby twitter.

All that meant that if Awful Comics Dude Twitter sent and deleted harassing DMs, they could use those deleted messages as a secret key that only their victims could use to decrypt their public messages. Clearly ACDT relished this galaxy-brain scheme and they chased Nur up and down the platform, making her choose every day between being a part of the big public conversation that her career depended on, and exposing herself to a torrent of traumatizing garbage people with their garbage messages.

So Nur was stuck in garbage land with terrible people, until the summer that she decided to attend a Comic-Con. She hadn’t been since they broke it up, it had been too confusing and political to decide which of the five babycons, dotted through the San Diego summer, that she’d attend. But Heroic Comic-Con seemed like her speed: nothing but super-heroes, no manga or gamer stuff, which she’d never had time for, not with all the glorious superhero comics out there to read and write. HCC was held in May, after southern California schools let out but before San Diego turned into an oven, so there was that going for it too.

It was a good call. The people were nice as hell, and when awful comics dudes got in her face, there were other creators around who’d give them six kinds of hell and send them packing. After a couple afternoons in the green room and a couple nights at the bar, she really felt like she had a posse.

One night she found herself at a raucous table of women comics creators at an all-you-can-eat plant-based Brazilian BBQ place in Gastown, and she worked up the nerve to ask them how they dealt with Awful Comics Dude Twitter.

Which is how she got invited to Gotham Clock Tower, a private baby twitter that had full interop with Main Twitter, safeguarded by the FTC and its technical committee. Alanna Gonzales (three years on X-Men before she rebooted Poison Ivy and made her a flagship title) had made the case to the technical committee, learning all the right FTC jargon to convince them that they deserved to federate with Main Twitter.

“Twitter lets you do that?”

She grinned. “They don’t stop us! The FTC gets to fine them 30 percent of their total US revenue if they try! Plus, the existence of Gotham Clock Tower means that they’re not being embarrassed on the reg for one of us calling them out for harassment.”

“But the harassment’s still there.”

She shrugged. “Yeah, but we don’t see it—or the replies other people send in response. Our filters are good enough to stop them. Plus we have our own house rules: unlike Main Twitter, we’ll accept your DM screenshots as evidence and block those bozos for all our users. It’s just one of the benefits of knowing all the other users personally and being able to trust them.”

“It sounds…”

“Weird? It’s weird. But it’s a nice weird.”

It was.

#

Finding Gotham Clock Tower was like tunneling under the wall around Main Twitter and emerging into a garden paradise. The other women there were incredibly supportive and kind, and they had all kinds of extra features in the service, like the ability to bud off private channels that weren’t pushed out to Main Twitter and its satellites.

A year later, she logged into her main Twitter account for the first time and was brought up short by how terrible it was. So angry, all the time, and the algorithm seemed to sort her feed by how likely something was to create a controversy. The experience left her literally shaking, and it wasn’t until the next day that she realized what it reminded her of: it was the feeling she used to get after her father hit her. She was having a PTSD attack.

This was what she’d been living with before Gotham Clock Tower.

After that, she became fiercely protective of GCT. It was her home now, a way for her to be part of the global dialog, sure, and interact with her fans, fine, but more importantly, it was a place where she could be her true self, with people she cared about and the people who cared about her.

It made her work better, which made her sales better, and soon X23 was one of the top superhero titles of the decade.

Warner-Baltimore—her favorite of the Baby Warners—contracted with her to turn it into a movie, paying the compulsory license fee to the Marvel Holdings company that had been spun out from Disney and bound by a consent decree to license out its characters on a fair/reasonable/nondiscriminatory basis. She wasn’t the only one developing an X23 movie, but she was the person who truly brought the character to life. She knew the character backwards and forwards, and she knew that whatever she made would be better than any other conceivable X23 movie.

The execs at Warner-Baltimore knew it too, and were putting real money behind her. But more importantly, her Gotham Clock Tower community knew it, and they were putting themselves behind her. With the women of GCT, there was a superhero.

—end.

 

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