Like many people, I greeted the arrival of Twitter, a dozen years ago, with a smirk and an eye roll rather than a gasp of panic. Here, it seemed, was the top of a tall roller coaster — the inevitable peak of our long climb through the strati of social media–abetted exhibitionism. Given the new platform’s character limits and our all-too-human delusion that others care what we’re doing, Twitter would surely find its place, I reckoned, as a kind of by-the-minute Facebook — not “Here are pictures of my family that reveal what our lives are like in the medium-to-long term” but “It is 4:23 p.m. and I am eating a stalk of celery.” Our interactions would be a little more insipid, in other words, but life wouldn’t drastically change.
Boy, was I wrong. And also, in a sense that I will explore momentarily, quite right.
Twitter, it is now clear, has altered American life. (Whether it has changed life in other countries, I am too provincial to know or care.) By gathering in one place the gossip and sanctimony previously dispersed in Internet comment sections, adolescent slumber parties, and the seminar rooms of academic fields with “studies” in their name, Twitter has made a great many of us a little more fearful, aggrieved, and intolerant than we might otherwise have been.
Indeed, complaining about the platform is one of the few bipartisan activities that Americans now enjoy, with vitriol against Twitter coming equally from the Right and the Left. Writing in The Atlantic last year, Laura Turner lamented that the service “remains dominantly focused on the world’s ills in a way that can decimate a person’s sense of efficacy and replace it with profound despair.” The New York Times’s Bret Stephens, meanwhile, has characterized Twitter as “the political pornography of our time: revealing but distorting, exciting but dulling, debasing to its users.” That those users are themselves increasingly frustrated with the product in question has not escaped the notice of social scientists. A recent survey by The Verge and Reticle Research found that more Americans have a “very” or “somewhat” negative opinion of Twitter than of any other major tech company. Given that the platform is, beneath a thin veneer of “news” updates and celebrity preening, a cesspool of trollery and rape threats with the occasional public shaming thrown in, such results are not surprising.
What is surprising, however, is the extent to which Americans continue to use a service that they simultaneously deplore and believe to be harmful. The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is one explanation, as psychologists and commentators have widely speculated, but the answer may, in fact, be far simpler. Twitter has perpetrated a fraud. It has convinced us that it matters.
That Twitter seems to matter is a function, in part, of its ubiquity. Scarcely five minutes of web browsing can be had these days without an encounter with the wretched Bird of Sorrow, looming over one’s reading material like a latter-day golden calf. Hardly a week passes without my hearing a student confess that Twitter is the first thing he or she “does” in the morning. (Often, the disclosure is followed by the admission that he or she secretly “hates” it.) Yet the illusion of Twitter’s significance is a result of more than just its omnipresence among the young or its inescapability within our inescapable news cycle. Rather, it is a consequence of the sheer numbers involved, as well as the sense — if one is a certain kind of persecution-complexed conservative — that those numbers represent a vast cultural wave coming to sweep us all away.
But they don’t. And it isn’t.
For proof of those assertions, take as an example the now 14-day-old tweet by one Jeremy Lam condemning the prom dress of Utah teen Keziah Daum. As of this writing, 178,666 people have “liked” Lam’s outburst, and while that number is certainly higher than I’d like it to be, it pales in comparison to the 350,000 firearms produced by U.S. manufacturers during the same 14 days (if historical norms have held), the nearly 7 million strips of bacon served by Waffle House, the 47 million movie tickets purchased by Americans, and the 325 million people who have gone about their apolitical business in this wonderful and heterogeneous nation. That Jeremy Lam, random adult, dislikes the dress of Keziah Daum, random teen, is an illustration of a mindset that I personally find noxious and destructive, but I’m never going to meet Lam or Daum, and I’m certainly not going to alter my own behavior as a consequence of the former’s tweet. (I recently broke a piñata. While wearing a sombrero. Surrounded by white people. Take that, social-justice warriors.) Yes, seeing Lam’s tweet was unpleasant — as was reading about it in every single news outlet from the Washington Post to the Kathmandu Crier — but that frisson of misery lasted all of about two seconds.
And then I got over it.
Don’t bring down the dread hand of the state. Don’t design a Twitter substitute for Reaganites. Just ignore the damn thing.
Which brings me to the best thing I’ve read lately about the grievous cultural harm done by Twitter and its devotees: Daniel Foster’s “What’s It to You?” in the print magazine’s most recent issue. In Foster’s view, Twitter’s worst sin is its tendency to make everything everyone’s business, all the time — to drive “fundamentally local issues . . . to instantaneity and ubiquity by the time-and-space decoupling power of technology.” Despite the seriousness of the charge, however, Foster’s conclusion — “Think locally, mind your business, who the hell do you think you are, anyway?” — is exactly the opposite of what one frequently hears from conservatives, too many of whom dream of smashing Twitter et al. by government fiat.
How about this for an alternative? Don’t bring down the dread hand of the state. Don’t design a Twitter substitute for Reaganites. Just ignore the damn thing.
Twitter is, after all, not a mechanism of persuasion. It is not a gauge of what “everyone” is thinking. It is an aggregator of venom — a deeply unpleasant noise machine with a prominently displayed off switch. Use it.