Color Wars Online
By Annalee Newitz
IMAGINE if you had a group of friends and acquaintances you saw every day at school or at work, and suddenly one morning instead of saying, "How are you?" they started saying, "Have you joined one of our teams yet?" At first, you would dismiss it as some dumb joke you missed on The Colbert Report the night before. But it keeps going. "I'm on white team. But Bob's on blue team," your pal says to you later. "Are you on the puce team?"
At this point, you truthfully believe that everybody has gone crazy and that the people you thought were your friends are actually a bunch of kids living on that island from the movie Battle Royale , where everybody has to kill each other for arbitrary reasons determined by a capricious authority figure who thinks he's a comedian.
This actually happened to me last week on a social network called Twitter, an online service that lets you send short messages out to people on your list of friends. Looking at your Twitter "stream," you'll see your friends' names and short "tweets" about what they're doing or how they're feeling.
When you work at home and don't have office pals to say hello to in the morning, Twitter is your surrogate office chit-chat zone. In the morning, I see my friends saying things like, "Yawn, I'm drinking coffee." Or "Gotta finish this awesome project." In the evening, people will say, "Going to Sugarlump café. Anyone want to come hang out?" Though I'm home on my computer, Twitter keeps me in touch with the social world.
But last week, for the first time, I felt like my friendly chat zone had become a freaky arena of prototribal warfare—and not the good kind of tribal warfare like in the recent flick Doomsday , with punk-rock cannibals and Malcolm McDowell dressed as a medieval king. Everybody had started joining colored teams. I kept getting messages like the ones I described earlier, where people were saying, "I'm on blue team! I'm on green team! What is your team?"
Finally, after hours of this, I typed a quick message to everybody: "I do not want to join a team." One of my friends replied, "OK, I've set up a team for you, 'No team!' You can join that!" No. I do not join colored teams. I don't join nonteams just to feel like I'm part of the team-joiners. I do not like when social spaces degenerate into meaningless competitions. Too much like Facebook.
I had to get to the bottom of what the hell was going on. After a few quick searches, I discovered that the color wars were started by a popular web personality named Ze Frank, who is most famous for doing funny shit online and creatively promoting the hell out of it. He decided it would be fun to say he was on "blue team" and then see how many people would join it or join other teams in response. On his blog, he wrote that it would be just like summer camp, where everybody joined a colored team and played tug-of-war or egg toss.
Except there are no potato sack races on Twitter. It's a communications medium, not a freaking summer camp. I love the hell out of tug-of-war and summer camp, but if you want to do that why not create a "summer camp" group on Twitter and get everybody to go out to the park and form teams and do shit? And then post all the photos on Flickr? Why turn a gregarious social space into meaninglessly divided-up factions?
The whole thing depressed me more than it should have because it confirmed my worst suspicions about humanity: One, that people will blindly do what a charismatic figure asks them to do even if it's stupid; and two, that in the absence of conflict, people will still race to form teams that fight each other for no reason.
This team thing took over a huge portion of the Twitter social network within a day. It spread that fast—as fast, perhaps, as our desire to form alliances based on conflict. So forgive me if I can't think of Ze Frank's little game as something "fun," like summer camp. It was about as fun as the Stanford Prison Experiment and just as revealing.
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who lives in the prehistory of human civilization.
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