Twitter’s “Private” Rooms

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My older brother once remarked that social media is the largest social experiment in history—and that we won’t appreciate its impact for years. He’s a brilliant, scientifically-minded guy who observes life with the detachment of a benevolent deity. In his mid-60s, he enjoys an enviable serenity of mind. He doesn’t feel an urgency to adapt to changing times, to drink almond milk or understand phrases like “bye Felicia.” With his relaxed sense of self comes freedom from the pressure to stake a claim in the “attention economy.” He’s active on Facebook, but on his terms, using it to share observations on scientific or historical trivia. His is a comfortable relationship with social media.

For many of us, though, our online experiences are more fraught. As a marketer who started out in print, I embraced digital media mid-career as the next means of communicating brand messages to targeted audiences. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with social media because I’ve seen the world without it and liked that world a lot more. Now that I spend most of my time writing, being active on digital channels like Facebook and Twitter is imperative unless I’m happy with a readership of three people.

Just Like Reality, Except Not

What makes me wary of social platforms is how they function as simulacra of reality—how they promise the intimacy of a real conversation while delivering something different and more complicated. Gen-Z and Millennial consumers grew up with social media and seem to have evolved into hybrid beings, both digital and flesh-and-blood. They move from social platforms to their physical lives with apparent ease. My brother would point out, however, that we’re seeing signs of social media’s deleterious effects on younger folks. Researchers speculate that the rise of anxiety and depression in America has a lot to do with social media and what Sherry Turkle describes in her book of the same title as being Alone Together.

As a simulacrum, social platforms deprive us of human contact while amplifying our less humane behavior. Twitter is the most notorious platform in this respect. Boasting 321 million monthly active users (a number that has, notably, declined from its high of 336 million in Q1 2018), Twitter is the place where people compete to outwit and out-scream each other in 280 characters. It’s shrill and loud and crowded.

Yet, for all that, Twitter can be deceptively intimate as well.

Right in My Wheelhouse

One of the first people I followed on Twitter is an Ivy League academic who frequents news shows as an expert on social issues. I’ve seen him speak and I’ve read his books. He’s brilliant and outspoken and boasts a respectable 80,000 followers. Not long ago, this fellow tweeted a brief, exasperated remark about Barack Obama. I’m an Obama admirer, and I’ve read fairly extensively about him and the subject in question; so for me, the tweet was right in my wheelhouse. In fact, it recalled an article by another well-known intellectual whose work I also admire. Believing I had a legitimate observation to share, I posted a reply, connecting this fellow’s tweet to the article I mentioned and how it might shed light on Obama.

I rarely comment on people’s tweets. The few times I have, I’m always respectful. In this situation, I was the first to comment, so it felt particularly intimate—like I was on the phone with someone I admired. Even if he disagreed with me, I figured, he’d appreciate my engaging thoughtfully rather than sounding off.

Later that afternoon, I saw that several people “liked” my comment, which was a first for me. Frankly I was surprised anyone noticed, much less applauded, my reply. Then another notification appeared on my Twitter app. This time it was a reply to my comment—another first for me. It said, simply, “Make it stop.” I didn’t immediately get what the comment meant. As I thought it through, another reply popped up. This time it was a gif of a TV talent show judge throwing her hands up in disgust. My stomach constricted when I saw that gif. I suppose that’s why people use them: They deliver a more visceral insult than mere words can.

What Lane Is that, Exactly?

I’ll admit I was rattled by those comments. I felt misunderstood, even betrayed. How could my harmless remark have drawn fire like that? Concerned there might be more nastiness coming my way, I muted the conversation in my Twitter settings. That would have done the trick, except the next day, I received an email sent through my blog. It contained a link to my Twitter comment and an abruptly worded rebuke telling me to “stay in my lane and stay the fuck out of our business.” Wow—someone had been angry enough to find my website, fill out the Contact form, and lob this email grenade. We should all have so much free time.

Written with such terse authority, the note left me wondering what exactly my “lane” is and, relatedly, who is the we that conducts its exclusive “business” in the open corridors of Twitter. I described this episode to a friend who’s had similar experiences on Twitter. “It’s weird,” he said, “how Twitter gives the illusion of intimacy—as if you’re actually having a conversation with someone.” He went on to remark that, for many Twitter users, replying to a Tweet is a moment of unexpected vulnerability when any of Twitter’s gazillion users might take notice and weigh in. Each of these users brings to the exchange no more understanding of you or your remark than a glance will provide—and many have a shitload of ideological baggage that disallows a thoughtful response. What feels like a private chat can quickly turn into a verbal riot.

Tempest in a Soap Bubble

Considering this notion of false intimacy, I scolded myself for being naive. I momentarily bought the illusion that my exchange with this academic took place in a quiet space where people actually converse. But there are no private rooms on Twitter. Every tweet is a wobbly soap bubble floating through the Twittersphere. Inside that fleeting, utterly transparent sphere is every comment, every reply to the tweet that created it. That bubble may not last long but, holy shit, it can hold quite a storm. The question arises: Who owns that ephemeral space, who rules the discussion, and who decides what “lane” each of us belongs in and who should “stay the fuck out?” The obvious answer is, of course, absolutely no one—no matter their truculent (and, one could argue, naive) assertions to the contrary. 

The nature of rigid ideology is to control discourse, to disallow and discredit ideas that oppose it. In the real world, ideology can be enforced with policy, threats, or even violence. On Twitter, ideologues revert to verbal intimidation, claiming virtual spaces as their own, imagining doors with peepholes between them and their antagonists. I thought about sending a “go fuck yourself” email to the “stay in your lane” person, but I thought better of it. I’m a lover, not a fighter, it turns out. I could probably generate a few more followers by getting confrontational, but that feels mendacious. It’s more honest to acknowledge the limitations of social media and, like my brother, engage on my terms—even if that means my Twitter following is more a punch line than a bragging point.

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