What a Bad ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ Tweet Teaches Us About Black Lives Matter Twitter Activism
In the midst of protests over widespread institutional racism, triggered by the murder of George Floyd, a Sonic the Hedgehog Twitter account put out a tweet. “For those who think we have no business as a Sonic site covering what is happening in the U.S.,” it began, “Sonic is wrongly detained by law enforcement in the first minute of SA2, and escaped. The plot + gameplay of Sonic Forces centers around ‘resistance’ rising vs. Eggman’s oppression.”
Over the next few days, I found myself thinking about this tweet. It was at once trivial and awful. Comparing Sonic with actual violence happening across the United States was insensitive and jarring. Even stranger, the writer had tried to create a sense of gravitas: “For those who think we have no business…” I read into it a sense of righteous indignation and fury, that it was standing up against the masses demanding Sonic news. It seemed to be hinting that injustice against the few pervaded the lives of the many, and that we were all involved. Either we stay silent and culpable, tacit supporters of oppression, or we stand up and do something. But then there was the abrupt tonal shift into banality. As the video game website Kotaku said: “That is a Very Bad Tweet!”
With the world in its current state, I often find myself relentlessly paging through Twitter. If my Twitter feed is anything to go by, I’m not the only one. Among the tweets and the memes and the threads and the shocking videos are other people describing how they too feel compelled to keep scrolling, an endless recursive experience. I’m not even sure what I’m looking for. Certainly not more videos of police brutality, although the police in the United States continue to find new and creative ways of shocking me. Sometimes, I think I’m looking for insight, for someone to articulate what I’m feeling about the violence in response to such a profoundly reasonable protest: All we’re asking is for the police to just stop literally killing innocent people.
On a normal day, the waterfall of content that pours over me can be jarring.
In literary theory, there is the concept of “performative utterances”: phrases whose meaning is enacted by saying them. “I name this ship,” “I declare you married,” “You are under arrest,” (somewhat topically), and so on. When a priest says “I declare you married,” those two people are then married. Saying it made it so. Sometimes, as I scroll past Twitter messages repeatedly saying the same things expressed slightly differently, I think I’m looking for a quasi-performative utterance — a tweet that is so pithy, so beautifully expressed that the very reading of it will trigger the enactment of change. That is a lot to ask from 280 characters. Sometimes I even think I’ve found one: a tweet so definitive that no one could reject its ideas. In the responses, people who already agree with the sentiment cheer, and those who disagree shout it down. My elation at the perfection of the tweet’s phrasing is only momentary. And then I scroll on.
Movements like Black Lives Matter spread through Twitter, like the coronavirus through our immune systems. Normally, my Twitter feed is a set of discrete, niche-interest bubbles, groups of people each talking about their own fixation. They are like the tanks of a container ship, compartmentalized and separate. I have bits of video game Twitter, software development Twitter, literary Twitter, number theory twitter, my friends in real life, and so on. You probably have your own set, curated from your interests. On a normal day, the waterfall of content that pours over me can be jarring. A tweet about rendering issues in Chrome might be followed by someone talking about abuse. Sometimes the tweets butt up against each other in ways that seem comically apt. “Can you believe the small things people get worked up about?” someone might tweet, immediately followed by another tweet from a completely different part of Twitter: “It’s taken three days for my SodaStream to arrive, Amazon sort your act out!!!!” I’m possibly the only person who sees these two particular sentiments collided together, the only person who follows these two particular people. It feels as if the universe has put on a joke just for me.
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I wonder if there’s a parallel universe where the Sonic tweet went down well. You can almost see the author’s thought process. I say this knowing nothing about the author or their intentions, but I can project and extrapolate onto the void. The tweet is an attempt, surely, to bridge the awkward disjuncture between a children’s game and widespread injustice. To say, with wryness: This isn’t okay. Look, it’s saying, the police are so bad they are analogous to cartoon-like villains in a children’s game. Had it been phrased slightly differently, perhaps it wouldn’t have left such a nasty taste in the mouth.
When I went back to the Sonic account on Twitter to check that I hadn’t misremembered the tweet, I found instead an empty Twitter stream with the message: “No longer publishing as of May 31, 2020.” Below was a link to a website, containing a bizarre message about the account closing. “Another voice in the community is lost,” it said of itself.
The world ignores the blatant institutionalized racism that is happening every day, distracted instead by its own posturing.
Twitter is full of what you might call “gimmick accounts” — accounts that aren’t individuals expressing their thoughts but are collections of messages on particular topics. Some are bots that send out pictures or regular tweets. Take Magical Realism Bot, which generates abstract story ideas every four hours (“A Welsh ship is sailing on an ocean of chronic pain,” is a typical example), or CRT Bot, which collates pictures of cathode ray tube monitors. Sometimes these accounts refer to the news while maintaining their conceit. Merriam-Webster, for example, tweets definitions, sometimes alluding to current events with its word choice: opprobrium, capricious, immoral.
CRT Bot recently broke character, dispensing with flickery nostalgic pictures of screens. “People’s lives aren’t a political issue. Entertainment shouldn’t be neutral,” it said. “I can’t in good conscious keep the bot running like nothing’s going on.” The tweet was met with a barrage of criticisms, cringes, complaints, and people pointing out that conscience was misspelled.
Indeed (inevitably), I subsequently found the Twitter account Gimmick Accounts Breaking Character. Collected here is a continuous, seemingly never-ending wall of accounts stepping away from their topic to address us directly. “I know this isn’t related,” they often begin. “Please support this petition” or “If you do not agree, just unfollow me.” Not all of the opinions are defensible.
There’s something about this character-breaking that incites a reaction. If Merriam-Webster were to speak directly, as a person, rather than a dictionary, I fear it would be on the receiving end of the opprobrium. It’s like an actor breaking the fourth wall, admitting onstage they are in a play, turning to the audience during Hamlet and telling us about atrocities. You can see this in CRT Bot’s followers. “Dude just post TVs,” one replied. Another seemed to see it as an affront to the artistic integrity of pictures of old screens: “Good gimmick accounts don’t break character.”
Ian Tuttle in the National Review has written multiple articles about another Twitter account, WeRateDogs (which does exactly what it says on the tin), stepping out of character. “I just wanted a place where I could look at pictures of cute dogs and not also be hounded about politics,” he wrote after WeRateDogs tweeted a joke about Donald Trump. On an episode of the podcast Reply All, Matt Nelson, who runs WeRateDogs, said he didn’t think the original tweet was the issue, but his subsequent apology message. “It wasn’t in my voice,” he said. “It didn’t sound like me.”
One group is literally being killed, while another is gently castigated for phrasing a tweet poorly.
Another response that crops up is escapism. “So I should be in 24/7 panic attack mode?” one user replied. “Escapism gives me the mental health management I NEED in order to care,” said another. In a piece on Literary Hub, Ellie Broughton described these sort of accounts as a “balm for news-induced anxiety.” This is an old debate, reopened and rehashed on Twitter in short, bad-faith replies: Do we have a moral obligation to know what is going on in the world? What should our response to atrocities be? Is it morally wrong to look at pictures of old TVs while injustice reigns?
Others point out that the topics picked reveal the world’s biases: a skew toward the Western world. There are other horrors too numerous to mention, let alone to consider and emotionally engage with. While this is true, I’m not sure I find it a compelling proposition: If we can’t do something about all atrocities, we shouldn’t do anything about any of them and instead should look at CRTs?
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TSSZ, the account that tweeted the awkward Sonic joke, has been publishing video game content for over 20 years. But after negative replies to this tweet, site owner Tristan Oliver shut down and deleted the entire site, including the entire back catalog of content — a response bizarrely out of proportion. The messages on Twitter were, on the whole, gentle reproaches. “Let’s not joke by comparing the games to what is happening in real life,” one said, “I don’t see any issue with a Sonic page talking about what is going on though.” Even the fairly standard “delete your account” was toned down to the more reasonable “delete this tweet.”
In the grand scheme of things, the Sonic tweet wasn’t that bad. It certainly wasn’t the worst thing people have tweeted. There have been plenty of extreme fascist responses to the protests. Compare it as well with the companies that tweet out blandly supportive messages, while their actions continue to marginalize. Or the obnoxiousness of using the protests as an opportunity to profit: “If you want to kill some pig cops this weekend, here’s the Duke Nukem 3D 20th Anniversary World Tour,” Randy Pitchford, CEO of the company that makes Duke Nukem, said in a now-deleted tweet.
I find it difficult not to roll my eyes at TSSZ. What other response is there, other than to say: It’s not about you. These minor spats and truculent responses are indicative of the problems the protests are highlighting: The world ignores the blatant institutionalized racism that is happening every day, distracted instead by its own posturing. One group is literally being killed, while another is gently castigated for phrasing a tweet poorly. Twitter is famously an echo chamber, but even when something breaks through the walls between sections, and spreads across the site, reflected and transformed by each community it touches, it doesn’t act as a leveler. Instead, it highlights even more the unequal and uneven world we live in.