Spend enough time on social media and you're bound to make a mistake that'll piss a few people off. It's pretty much inevitable. That's what the free indie "game" #notifications is all about. It begins the way many of us start our day: lying in bed, checking Twitter ("Twiddler" in this case) on a smartphone. There's a single eponymous notification for you at this point: a favorite on a tweet from the night before reading, "Tomorrow's going to be good, I can feel it!" That was incredibly short-lived.
It's innocent enough and the rest of the timeline is pretty low-key too. People talking about how much they love Game of Thrones, excitement at the arrival of a Portal gun replica, folks using Twiddler as a platform to complain about Twiddler. Pretty standard stuff, if not a little cliché. To progress through each scene (waking up, bus ride to the office, work, bus ride home, watching TV, going to sleep) you need to tweet at least once as in-game avatar @meta_social. Meta_social, and by extension, you, is a "techie/gamer/social justice mage" whose "views expressed are sometimes interesting." At least that's what the bio reads.
Progress is pretty simple, too: Pull out your phone by tapping the space bar; scroll through the timeline with your mouse; and click to choose from four prewritten tweets to send. Once that's done, hit the space bar again to put your phone away.
Like the timeline, the prewritten tweets start out pretty innocuously. I could jokingly ask for someone to come keep me company and beg for them to bring food along, say how "freaking excellent" Daredevil was, beg for donations for a new laptop or say that fruit isn't a dessert. Honestly, they sounded like the musings of a high schooler. Regardless, none of them elicited a response from the people following me. As the day wore on, for each happy tweet I selected to send, a negative one replaced it in the responses I could choose next.
By the time I was sitting on the couch in front of the TV that night, I was forced to choose something that'd surely trigger a firestorm: HAHAHAHA M.R.A.'S. Oh look, another day, another woman getting abused on the internet for voicing her opinion. How could anyone possibly think that conservative politics is EVER a good idea? Cops kill white guy: 'horrible tragedy.' Cops kill black guy: 'Plz have a look at their rap sheet.' If you've spent any time on Twitter, you can probably guess how this turned out. I picked the first one.
Almost immediately, my in-game phone started blowing up with replies ranging from, "I hope you get into a car crash," and, "Go eat a bag of dicks," to the simple, yet effective, "Get fucked," and countless retweets or favorites of the latter. Not even, "And why should I listen to you? What makes you think anyone cares about you?" had an effect on me. The constant beeping was more annoying than anything the anonymous assholes could say, so I hit the space bar to put my phone away.
Almost immediately my in-game phone started blowing up with replies ranging from, "I hope you get into a car crash," and, "Go eat a bag of dicks."
Except the beeping didn't stop. Not the next morning in bed or on the bus or at work. The abuse kept rolling in, my phone making a steady "beep" once every three seconds. I had four ways to respond: two responses ignoring the spam in my notifications, or two directly addressing them: "You know what, I'm not gonna let this stuff get to me. I've got some Bloodborne to get to," and, "All the little babies in my mentions. Nobodies listening sweeties." I went with something about looking forward to the weekend. That'll show them, I thought.
By the next night when I was back on my couch, I had 238 unread notifications. I knew what they'd all say. Or the general gist of them, at least. "Get cancer you piece of shit." "Fucking die in a fire." "And who the fuck are you? Get off Twiddler you faggot." "Find a rope to hang yourself with." "You're a fucking nobody." Still no words of encouragement for the positive things I'd tweeted after the one mistake. This was where #notifications' cracks started to show. Maybe it was because I don't start flamewars on Twitter or have curated my timeline and followers to be a (mostly) positive outlet that I found this incredibly unrealistic.
It kept going for a few more in-game days until finally one morning there was an option on the phone to call a loved one; game over.
I've been through my share of abuse online. Whether it's accusations of being on Microsoft's payroll over a feature story I'd worked my ass off on or condescension from eggshell and hentai avatars over getting one detail of a video game's narrative wrong, you name it and I've probably seen it. The thing is, none of what's here felt like that -- it didn't come off like a personal attack. And really, it wouldn't have mattered either way because I could just ignore the tweets and choose from a bland, required response to progress, forgetting what I'd picked immediately after sending it.
On its surface, #notifications looks like a decent representation of cyberbullying.
I didn't care because I knew that this wasn't real life. There wasn't exactly anything to draw me in and make me feel like it was happening to me in the way I'm Positive did, either.
It isn't that I disagreed with any of the controversial tweets I'd had to choose from; that's just not how I behave in real life. From those earliest moments, I couldn't help but see #notifications as nothing more than a farce. There wasn't a deeper message; just a poorly written attempt at commentary. Like what populated @meta_social's timeline, everything just felt shallow and overwrought. Maybe if I'd have been able to customize Twiddler's layout in the game (I'll wear pink neckties, but prefer my apps blue, thank you very much) or maybe craft tweets of my own, there would've been a stronger personal connection for me. Instead, the illusion of choice divorced me from developing any real sort of attachment here.
What could've served as a poignant reminder, or something that puts a harsh spotlight on online abuse ends up taking itself far too seriously and falls flat in its execution. Sure, on its surface, it looks like a decent representation of cyberbullying, but offensive tweets are repeated ad nausea (even from different people), which stripped away some of their impact. Regardless of what I chose, the outcome never changing didn't help #notifications' cause, either.After the screen went black as I called a loved one, I wasn't glad that #notifications was over because of the thoughtful, yet harrowing 20-minute journey I'd just taken. Instead, I was relieved because the game was finally done and I could move on.