Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Kill File

‘When you rely on a particular tactic, it starts to become the core of your strategy — you see the puff of smoke, and he’s gone.’

(Paul Pillar, former deputy director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center)

It was as much a question of bandwidth as of attention. Loading all of those derailing posts, and all of the responses to all of the derailing posts, took time and eroded the cap on my painfully slow dial-up connection. So I started using a kill file.

At first I just killed the known trolls. There were epic ones in the newsgroups I frequented in those days. The one known as Maria Strofa ruled over it.cultura.libri like a warlord-poet. In some of the largest newsgroups devoted to politics or science-fiction, the trolls travelled in packs, so if you decided to go down that route you had to add new people to the kill file on a daily basis. I say new people, but sometimes it was the old people under new names. That’s how the internet worked before social media and the identity wars.

Bandwidth, attention. In the early days of the global internet they were metaphoric synonyms. Somebody might say they only had so many megabytes or RAM to devote to a certain topic or problem. The mental and social space was mapped onto an ideal, platonic computer, or an ideal, platonic network. Improving the workings of those machines became therefore a way of improving communication and the quality of online relationships. Online was still seen as having its own ecology, and killing people was promoted as a way of preserving that ecology.

It was considered poor form to share the contents of your kill file, but if you decided to kill a particularly objectionable person, sometimes you’d do it in the open. Plonk. That was the sound that the kill file made, as if you had dropped the person into a giant empty metal bucket. I did this. I used that word, as an adult, more than once, to signal to somebody on the internet that I was going to kill them. In fact I just had, at that very moment. Plonk. You’re gone.

Killing people was very effective. The next time you downloaded the content of a newsgroup, they just disappeared. People still talked about them. Sometimes they even debated them, as if they were still alive. But they weren’t. Not to you, anyway. The best newsreaders allowed you to remove the ghostly conversations by eliminating the responses to messages posted by a user that you had killed.

Killing people was effective but a blunt instrument. So the kill file evolved. You might want to silence somebody only temporarily. Or you might want to kill certain topics instead of individual users, or posts with phrases that might indicate spam. Thus in newsreaders like slrn and Xnews the kill file became the score file. A more subtle, sophisticated tool. Every topic and every user started at 0. By setting the appropriate regular expressions, you could assign positive or negative scores to either, and then set the threshold for the material you wanted to read. For instance you could ask just for the topics or posts with a positive, as opposed to neutral, score. The score –9999 became equivalent to the old instruction ‘kill’. But now you could do so much more.

It was common for users on dial-up to consume forums offline, so the score file gave you the means of creating a sanitised local version of the internet on your machine. In some newsgroups it was a necessary measure. Nobody was in charge and most communities hadn’t developed effective ways of managing themselves, so it was up to you to clean up your feed.


The web has changed. Newsgroups exposed people to vast, unregulated discussion forums. Now you are expected to choose the people you want to converse with as opposed to a limited set of topics of conversation open to (theoretically) everyone. And if you made the decision to ‘friend’ or ‘follow’ someone then it would make little sense for you to kill them, wouldn’t it? You could just rescind the friendship or the follow, with or without stating the reasons or recurring to onomatopoeia (unfriending and unfollowing don’t make a sound, as far as I am aware).

Yet the kill file hasn’t disappeared. It has just changed form, adapting to the dominant ways of encoding social relationships on the networks.

Take Facebook. On Facebook you cannot score people or topics according to your own criteria – the company won’t let you hijack its product to that extent – but there is a way of unfriending people without their knowledge. The feature was launched in 2009 and is called ‘hide’. Hide a friend and they’ll quietly disappear from your feed, just like in the old kill file, whilst continuing to ‘see’ you as if nothing had happened. However thanks to hiding you can not only unfriend people without any of the unpleasantness but also critically undermine friending itself. So long as it is possible to friend someone knowing in advance that you will never have to pay any attention to them, the reciprocity on which the idea of friendship is supposedly built – as much off the network as on it – ceases to have meaning.

Twitter doesn’t have a built-in hide capability but it allows third-party interfaces. Some of them have functions like ‘mute’, which enables you to either silence individual users or exclude certain topics from the feed (provided they are designated by a consistent hashtag). Thanks to muting you could follow an indefinite number of users without ever planning to listen to a word they say. This will help you to build a following, again because of the perceived value of reciprocity.

For bandwidth is no longer a problem, but attention is as valuable a commodity as you will find on the web. Pay no attention to me and I cease to exist. Hide me, mute me and I will be consigned to a social limbo, there to dwell amongst the givers of reputation.

Unlike Facebook and Twitter, Google Plus integrated these ideas from the outset and featured a 'contact circles' structure that functionally resembled an advanced kill file. Because this mechanism was built-in, people quickly worked out they could just cheat and build fake contact networks. This is why Google Plus, more than any other network, foreshadows the death of the social web: a place where everyone is everyone’s friend but nobody listens to anyone.


The days of the kill file have returned. They never really went away. But I must account for the provocative quote at the top of this post. Do I really think that a newsreader’s metaphoric kill file is comparable to Obama’s list of people whose life will actually be ended? Yes, insofar as they are both dabatases designed to eliminate certain people on the basis of certain criteria. They are both informational constructs, a product of the technopoly. You couldn’t conceive of the kill list in a world that wasn’t mapped by computer networks and governed by institutions for whom human problems are best represented in database form. The same Washington Post article from which I took that quote also included the following, from a senior Obama administration official:
We can’t possibly kill everyone who wants to harm us. It’s a necessary part of what we do… We’re not going to wind up in 10 years in a world of everybody holding hands and saying, ‘We love America.’
The CIA will never run out of high-level targets. The internet will never run out of trolls. This is simply because should either of those categories be emptied, the database would fill them again with the people previously defined as mid-level targets, or a nuisance. The danger of terrorism or insurgency will never disappear in the same way that online social interactions will never become perfectly smooth. This is why the kill list and the kill file are not to be understood as temporary solutions but rather as permanent features, a way not just of dealing with concrete problems but of imagining and seeing the world.