Perhaps You Should Not Spend All Day Ridiculing Others From Afar
yes, you can hold others up for ritualistic communal disdain, but why?
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Whenever I write about anything related to social media, I am regaled with complaints that none of it matters. “Why would you write about [social media network]?,” people always ask. “It's not real life.” This is particularly common regarding Twitter, usually coming from dedicated users of that very service.
I find this strange. Almost a quarter of the world’s population uses a social network or messaging app controlled by Facebook. (Excuse me, “Meta.”) Every day researchers seem to find new reason to believe that Instagram or Tik Tok are causing some serious social and emotional harm to our young people. Writers will tell you that they simply could not exist as professionals without their social media accounts. Hugely important deals and agreements are cut over DMs on various networks; what gets shared in those spaces determines what generates revenue and thus what gets reported, analyzed, and written. Being popular among other members of your profession on social networks can be hugely important for your progress in that profession. Twitter is in particular a forum of some of the most influential people on planet earth, celebrities and scientists and historians and news anchors and editors and athletes. The parts of our society that tell the world’s collective story, media and journalism and academia, are filled with those who are absolutely obsessed with Twitter. I think that for this reason alone Twitter specifically and social media generally need to be taken seriously, as much as I would like to treat it all as an irrelevant sideshow.
Some of the most active Twitter accounts, with the largest followings, are run by people who mockingly dismiss the network and anyone who takes it seriously. This is of course self-defensive. Individuals who spend too much time on social media dismiss its importance because they recognize there is something trivial about the whole enterprise, while those who are mostly offline would prefer not to have to grapple with the impact of the virtual world on the real. But many, many people with large audiences, and some with real power, reach for their phones to check Twitter when they get up in the morning and check Twitter right before they go to sleep. I think that matters.
So sad, then, that Twitter is a festival of cruelty. A truly stupefying percentage of what goes on there is people holding up individuals for mockery, and thousands of others joylessly and ritualistically participating in that mockery.
Earlier in my career I would sometimes read something that a professional writer had professionally published in a professional publication and disagree with some or all of it. In those days it was very common that the writer would put their email in the footer. So I would often write them and say “X doesn’t seem right to me,” or some such. I presumed that such engagement was what the email address was there for. And many many times the same dynamic would play out: whoever I had emailed to offer criticism or complaint would not respond to the email, but would rather go on Twitter and make fun of me for sending it. Their peers would oblige them by participating in that mockery. Which, you know, fine. What would get to me was the fact that they would all fixate on how weird it apparently was. “That’s so weird,” they would always say. “It’s so weird that he would email you.” Not my criticism, but specifically the idea of registering it And these were those kinds of moments where you wonder what species you were meant to be a part of. To me, an adult directly and privately sharing criticism with another adult, who had put forward some argument professionally, is not that weird. Declining the opportunity to directly respond to criticism, but publicly ridiculing the act of that criticism without confronting the substance, without the engagement of the person who voiced it, and with the enthusiastic backing of a cohort of peers who were entirely third parties… I kind of think that’s weird?
Of course, on the question of who was weird there was always one person (me) against a bunch of people (the Twitter mockery mob), and so it never really broke to my benefit. Worse still, I could never get anyone to take seriously the question of whether that behavior, holding up people for group insult without the participation of the insulted, was socially desirable. Because Twitter spreads around responsibility while particularizing reward.
There is, on Twitter, the concept of the “main character,” and the way it’s discussed is a perfect example of how people on that network shuck their own sense of agency and responsibility. (It’s a textbook example of bad faith in the tradition of French existentialism, actually.) Coined by user @maplecocaine, the maxim is “Each day on twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it.” In other words, each day on Twitter someone is held up for widespread public ridicule, and you want to make sure that it’s not you, because your job in life is never to do anything that might result in you getting made fun of by others, or something. But the expression of the main character idea is a tell: it’s an entirely passive construction. Who chooses the main character? Wrong question; the main character just is. Hey, it’s just Twitter.
But Twitter is only the behavior of its users. Saying that there just is a main character is a denial of agency. There’s a main character because people choose to treat someone that way. People see a pile-on and they say “that looks like fun!” and they exercise their adult choice to participate. It doesn’t just happen. So “there is” here is weasel words, bad faith. A more honest synopsis would be “each day we, meaning you and me, choose to hold one person up for shared ridicule.” But this is the true killer app of social media: it socializes responsibility for bad behavior. Internet culture insists that every individual actor is just participating in some larger communal behavior, rather than exercising intentionality and choice. Oh, hey, well, sure, I helped make the worst day of someone’s life a little bit worse, but come on, everybody else was doing it too….
So people deny that social media means anything to them, and they treat it as so destructive to agency that they have no hand in what happens. And so you get this dynamic where people regularly take part in behaviors they would never consciously defend. Not a single soul looks at standard practice on Twitter and says “This is healthy behavior and I think it's how adults should behave.”
Sure, away from the keyboard we shit talk others in real life, people we know personally or professionally. But we do so privately, ensuring that the other person not take a hit to their feelings and maintaining certain communal norms of adult conduct towards others. (Such as criticizing directly rather than passively and with a degree of integrity.) Twitter behavior, undertaken by some of the most successful and celebrated writers and journalists and academics and thinkers in the world, amounts to being in a crowded room, waiting for that disfavored person to leave so they can’t defend themselves, and then communally and publicly ridiculing them from a safe distance. It’s all predicated on a kind of social bravery that stems only from the backing of a crowd and the protection of digital distance. Who would defend such a thing, on the merits? Very few. Instead, those who are called on this behavior have the only argument that anyone in our era ever musters: lol lol lol lmao lol lol lol. That, surely, will be the most common reaction to this piece too. But I think it's legitimate, and in fact quite natural, to find this all am unhappy circumstance. Why has a generation of writers decided that the behavior that should most define their culture is just talking shit, endlessly, directionlessly?
The question of stakes persists, I guess. Does any of it matter? I think it does. For one thing, it matters to the people who are ridiculed, and we should give a shit about the feelings of individuals. But I do also think it has macro effects. You might look at my own beleaguered political tendency for an example. For years, I’ve said to socialists that the addiction to being a comedy troupe rather than a political movement is killing us, that generations of young lefties have become convinced that the way to do politics is to shitpost and dunk and gif and meme and mock, and this is powerfully contrary to the goal of gaining power. Sometimes I have sympathetic audiences when I say this. But I’m always swimming against a strong tide, which is that the people who engage in this form of “politics” simply double down on it when its limitations are pointed out. That is, they respond to the impotence of dunks and jokes by dunking and joking. And since no one wants to appear to be uncool or unsavvy, it’s a very effective tactic. Outside of the group, very few are being persuaded by yet another bout of mockery. But within the group, where people are invested in maintaining their relationships and standing, these tactics are very powerful indeed. It’s a terrible trap and five disappointing years after the failure of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign I’m not at all confident that we can escape it.
I think the trouble is not that people are seeking a kind of community, even if it’s a community of bitterness and ridicule. I think the problem is that they’re seeking it because they do not trust a single thing they think or feel unless it receives the affirmation of a crowd of their peers. They hold up others for ridicule to mock what they don’t understand, to defend their place in the in-crowd, to keep from becoming the target of mockery themselves, to cover for their own feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness, yes. All of that is true. But more than anything, they do it because they have no confidence whatsoever that what they think or feel is in any intrinsic sense real. And while I’d like to call all of this a defect of character, I think that this is all something that’s been done to them, rather than something they’ve done. They’ve grown up into a chaos of meaning into which a technology has been injected that puts them into contact with the opinions of others every waking moment of their lives. If you are prone to insecurity, farming your opinions and expressions and politics and style out to that army of voices must be a comforting prospect.
Also - and this will endear me to no one - writing tends to appeal to the shy, the quiet, the lonely. Writing is a way to be alone. So you take a cohort of people who largely grew up into the vocation of writing due to low-key and introverted personalities, then thrust them into a digital era that insists on 24 hour exposure to the personalities of others, and the tendency for social media to devolve into cliquishness that should embarrass adults becomes easier to understand. Cliques can be very safe places in which to hide. And, human nature being what it is, it’s little surprise that a profession of indoor kids and loners becomes in the performed spaces of the internet a stage for people playacting brash, confident, mocking, jocular personalities. They tweet the selves they cannot be, and that’s why 90% of the writers you know have identical public personas of ultra-secure class clowns who sit in the back and mock it all with knowingness and disdain. That is not who they really are, and paradoxically that is why you must try to forgive them.
It still disappoints me, though. I will often go looking for a particular writer’s Twitter feed, someone I like and respect, and find that they’re engaged in high school mean girl behavior that should absolutely be beneath them. I often think “you know anyone can see you acting this way, right?” Is it because you have to click over to the replies tab to see the really cruel stuff? I don’t know. It’s a public forum and a permanent record. The fact that you may not think of what you’re doing as public in any given moment doesn’t change that. That’s another of my least favorite aspects of social media: it tells people that they can have the benefits of public engagement without the drag of public responsibility. But that’s not an adult thing to desire.
You can get out, though, and you can do it simply by doing nothing. Unilateral disarmament is an attractive option. I don’t expect anyone to take up my banner or otherwise publicly associate with me on this. (I expect, indeed, that there are some who will both deeply agree with this piece and then use it as an excuse to participate in the very behaviors it criticizes.) I don’t particularly think you should take some sort of public anti-dunking stance at all, in fact. But I think you can, and should, simply decline to participate. Maintain your typical attachment to Twitter or any other social network, absolutely fine. Have your policy discussions and share your work. Tell jokes if you must. Then, when someone becomes the “main character,” simply decline to participate. Resolve not to be part of the mocking chorus. You can do this 100% passively. No one will miss you. And I suspect you’ll find a little weight has been lifted off of your shoulders.
As for me, I don’t send many of those emails anymore. No percentage in it. Unfortunately if I criticize in my published work and name names, I’m accused of bullying, and if I don’t name names, I’m accused of being too vague. Here it would feel unfair to criticize any individuals, as the behavior I’m describing is so ubiquitous - but of course this is precisely the trouble. Meanwhile that vast hate machine throbs along, adults who should know better participate in inexcusable behavior, and they just shrug and tell me it’s Chinatown. It’s a funny world. I still think that if you have a criticism you should be willing to just tell someone, directly and personally if not necessarily privately, that you think they’re wrong, in a way that demonstrates individual responsibility to that criticism and which does not invite a pile-on. In the long run, it’s better for everyone.