Affordances are a slippery term in the literature on technology (see Nagy & Neff, 2015, Imagined Affordances: Reconstructing a Keyword for Communication Theory for a solid review of the origins of the term, and further theorizing of how to use it in the future), but I would describe them simply, as the kinds of action that a technology or technological system makes easy rather than hard, and the kinds of purposes that users see as potentially active in those technologies. Affordances bridge the concrete space of the physical world, and the mathematic cognates to materiality in the digital, the psychological and perceptual capabilities of individual intelligences, and the social and culture possibilities of large numbers of people.
Guerrilla affordances are therefore those which invite users to make attacks, which shield them from the consequences of being an aggressor, and which amplify the scope of attacks. The tricky part is that many guerrilla affordances are a slight modification of the default affordances of a social communication platform, some generic statement like “We want our users to express themselves, communicate with each other, and discover what’s popular, without jumping through a bunch of hoops.” That said, let’s talk about some guerilla affordances.
“Select the tactic of seeming to come from the East and attacking from the West; avoid the solid, attack the hollow; attack; withdraw; deliver a lightning blow, seek a lightning decision. When guerrillas engage a stronger enemy, they withdraw when he advances; harass him when he stops; strike him when he is weary; pursue him when he withdraws.”
One thing that is key to note is that this not about speech as expression or communication. This is about speech as a weapon. Harassers are very clear that their objective is to silence their opponents through psychological harm, threats of violence, and ultimately physical harm. Why would you tell someone to kill themselves if you didn’t actually want them to commit suicide? The emotional asymmetry comes in because it is easy and fun to flame, insult, and otherwise self-stimulate aggression, and much less pleasant to be on the receiving end. This affordance is psychological, rather than technological, but grounds everything that follows.
“The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.”
You can ban somebody, but they’ll be back. It is trivially easy make a new account on many services specifically for the purposes of harassment and these newbies have the exact same technological status as someone who’s been around for years, who has invested time and energy into building up an online rep. The ability to strike, fade, and avoid attacks is key to all guerrilla strategies. Most counters to online attacks, such as bans and blocks, are ineffective because they target accounts, and accounts are almost always a disposal mask for the attacker behind them.
“Guerrilla war is a kind of war waged by the few but dependent on the support of many.”
--B.H Liddell Hart
Distance is a funny thing online. I like to measure it in clicks, how many distinct actions it takes to go somewhere. The hyperlink, a basic building block of the web, means that nothing is more than one click away (In theory. For some reason getting pdfs of journal articles always takes me like five clicks). Hyperlinking makes it easy amplify an attack, as people pass on “Look at this fucking shit links”. It’s a conscious tactic, as Eron Gjoni, shopped his gamergate starting zeopost to SomethingAwful.com and Reddit before getting traction on 4chan to generate an army to hit his ex with, or reminding people to retweet a hashtag in the hopes of breaking into Twitter’s trending. Existing wells of guerrillas means that there’s a ready supply of angry jerks ready to supply a brigade. These affordances give greater weight to a small, highly motivated minority than a more or less quiescent majority.
“Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.”
Law and order takes effort to maintain. There are 2.5 police officers for 1000 people in the US. The counter-insurgency rule of thumb is 20 counter-insurgents for 1000 civilians. To take Twitter as an example again, it has about 3700 employees and 307 million monthly active users. Even if all those employees were on moderation, or community management, or whatever you want to call it, that’d be a ratio of 0.012 employees per 1000 users, several orders of magnitude lower than physical world comparisons. Facebook is notorious for Mechanical Turking its content moderators, paying foreign contractors a few dollars an hour to check content (and occasionally come face-to-face with child porn or an ISIS execution). Unsurprisingly, content checking is based on simple mechanical rules like “are there nipples?” rather than political judgments like “is this group inciting race war?”
Going Forward: Towards a Counter-Insurgency Theory of Platforms
“I think a failed state is the responsibility of the people who have made that state fail, and those are generally the people of that country.”
Affordances are both real and imaginary. What we need are real changes to make it a little easier to imagine that we’re citizens in a shared community, and a little harder that we’re fighters striking out against the evil around us.