New documentary shows off Twitter co-creator’s anarchist side

Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, Ev Williams: those are the names we associate with the founding of Twitter. But as a new documentary aims to show, there’s a Twitter co-creator you haven’t heard of who’s looking to bring Silicon Valley ideals to the activist space.

Evan Henshaw-Plath, the subject of the latest episode of Al-Jazeera’s Rebel Geeks series, left the social media network shortly after it launched, but says he learned incredibly valuable lessons during his time there.

The Twitter co-creator now lives mostly off the grid, partly in a house in Portland and partly in a house in the woods made from recycled paper. He describes himself as “a hacker, a trouble-maker, and an activist,” not to mention a “non-ideological anarchist.”

Before co-creating Twitter, he spent five years setting up computer labs and websites for anti-globalisation groups.

“I was a broke activist travelling around, living in a Volkswagen bus that I bought for US$200 and I saw this contract on Craigslist of… a company trying to create a new media of communication. And I was like: ‘I’m all for trying to democratise the media; I’ll do this.'”

Read more: 4 ways big tech companies helped out during the Paris attacks

That contract was for Twitter and, according to Henshaw-Plath, the social network did more to disrupt mainstream media than any of the activist projects he was previously involved in.

“The project which I told my friends I was selling out to work at — the startup — had a larger effect on transforming the media,” he says.

“Very few actual protests are co-ordinated on Twitter but the public sphere and the personal feeling about them is completely driven by it,” he says. “It let people share ideas and memes and share photos and share videos and shape the media and shape their own narrative. To transform the world and the way we make social change.”

That said, Henshaw-Plath reckons that many of Twitter’s antecedents come from the activist space. Activist communications platforms like TXTmob (a message alert system for protests), he says, were “a major precursor to what has become social media…”

Read more: Paris attacks: the many faces of social media’s response to terror

As early as 2004, he says activists at the Republican Convention in New York were using TXTmob on their cell phones to send and receive “tweet-like messages, single-sentence, 140-characters-long, that were breaking news updates,” allowing protesters to share information on undercover officers and police tactics.

According to a release sent out about the documentary,  it isn’t always easy for the Twitter co-creator to marry the lessons of Silicon Valley with his activist ideals. Silicon Valley sees exploiting big data as the key to efficiency, while hackers and activists rather perceive it as a dangerous tool for totalitarian social control.

Steal From The Capitalists premieres on Monday, 23 November 2015 at 2230GMT, with repeats on Tuesday at 0930; Wednesday 0330; Thursday 1630; and Friday 0530 GMT.

Later on, Al-Jazeera says, the episode will be posted to YouTube, along with the rest of the series.



Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights. sign up

Welcome to Memeburn

Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights.