Traci Hafner/DAME


Photo by Traci Hafner/DAME

Twitter, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down

In this elegy to Twitter, the writer reflects on the platform she first joined a decade ago—once a place to network with her literary idols—and the troll-laden, gladiator-like arena it is today.

We urgently need your help.  DAME reports the stories that need to be told, from perspectives that aren’t heard enough. In times of crisis it is even more critical that these voices are not overlooked, but COVID-19 has impacted our ability to keep publishing. Please support our mission by joining today to help us keep reporting.

When I first signed up for Twitter on July 14, 2008, I was living in Los Angeles. I had just moved from New York a few months before, and though the recession had not yet hit, my exciting freelance career was still stagnant, and I didn’t know too many people in L.A. I was bored, a little lonely, and sitting in my apartment in Santa Monica, wondering what to do.

“Still thinks twitter is stupid,” I wrote in my first tweet, three days later.

That illuminating tweet was also followed by: “does not understand the point of twitter.” And: “still doesn’t get twitter.”

I didn’t really know how to interact with it. Facebook was also relatively new and there was a period of time where I treated them the same and linked the two accounts (the horror!). Status updates were one-line mundanities: (Tricia Romano) “is blog,” or “getting ready to read some david sedaris and going to bed.”

In the early days, I began to follow friends, professional colleagues, comedians, and most thrillingly, strangers, some of them famous, some not.

It was on Twitter I met Susan Orlean (@susanorlean) back when she and I had the same number of Twitter followers (as I still have less than 4,000 followers, she’s long since surpassed me). It was on Twitter that I bantered with the late New York Times journalist David Carr (@carr2n), and on Twitter that I met people like Sophie Heawood (@heawood) or Andrew Norcross (@norcross) and Ethan Schoonover (@ethanschoonover) who helped me with my website from afar, and later, people I’ve dreamed of knowing since I was a little girl, like Debbie Harry of Blondie, who followed me (and has yet to unfollow me even though I tweet way too much—and badly—about football). I even had a scandalous long-distance affair with a Twitter contact.

At one point, a few of us newfound Twitter friends connected in real life (I discovered that @kittenhotep and stand about two feet apart in height and it is comedy gold); I met up with Orlean at the beach in Santa Monica; and I became one of many “close personal friends” with Carr.  During those nascent days, there were silly or deep conversations, introductions to ideas and concepts that I might not have had sitting alone in my Santa Monica apartment. The beauty of Twitter, especially in the early days, was randomness and collectiveness.

When the recession hit, and I lost the job I had been doing for a few months, and when all of the columns and freelance gigs fell apart or disappeared during the Great Media Die-Off of 2009, I turned to Twitter for comfort. Here, in this digital biosphere, were people who understood my predicament; many of them were in the same place, too. I felt bonded to these avatars.

Today, the notion that you’d take comfort in Twitter is impossible to conceive.

During Twitter fights, the way strangers (or even Twitter acquaintances) treat each other online is reminiscent of men on Tinder:

“6’2”,  9.5”, cut cock, u interested?”

No one in their right mind would say that to you face-to-face, at least in the straight world. When confronted in person, most Twitter trolls shrink, not expand. Feminist writer Lindy West wrote about confronting her troll, a man who stole her dead father’s identity to taunt her. It turned out, he was a person who was overcompensating for his low self-esteem and directing it toward someone who was confident and smart, somehow thinking that bringing her low, would make him feel better, bigger. It didn’t.

Trolling on Twitter is an even lower form of trolling than is found in the comments section—with only 140 characters, it’s hard to even be creative in your insults. In the eleven years since its inception, Twitter has become a virtual cesspool of abuse, public shaming, trolls, fake news, lies, bad jokes, and garbage people treating other people like garbage. It is utilized most powerfully by Trump, the most powerful man in the world, who it is feared, will start a nuclear war with a Tweet. Trump uses the platform for dissemination of propaganda, spewing hate, and lies.

For women, Twitter is the digital equivalent of walking a plank naked as a bunch of men catcall you and masturbate. Just ask West or Rose McGowan, who was banned last week for a day after calling out Hollywood execs about Harvey Weinstein, or really any female person.

But, as my Twitter friend, Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz) put it in a series of tweets:

“When you see R McGowan getting suspended while sadistic goons Tweet with impunity it tells you who’s running this service. And for whom.

Seriously, there are accounts that consist of nothing but insults, abuse and emotional torture. Twitter does nothing about them.

I’ve reported people for abusive or bigoted Tweets & gotten them kicked off only to see them return w/a slightly different screen name.”

In the last few years, high-profile figures have publicly announced their leave of the social network. West left in earlier this year; and last week comedian Joe Mande posted a long fuck-you to the site, calling it “the internet’s version of smoking embalming fluid.”

Like McGowan, Mande had been put in “Twitter jail,” Mande for telling Twitter trolls to “suck my dick.”

The platform gives lip service to “fixing the problem” without really doing much. It may be that it’s impossible. There are some ways to make Twitter less hateful: muting words and people, only seeing responses or tweets from people you follow, but with each of these steps, you move further away from and open dialogue toward a closed system, rendering it useless. You could do like Yancey Strickler (@ystrickler) of Kickstarter does, unfollow everyone and just tweet, sending your message into the ether, reducing Twitter to a one-way street.  

The site is “working on it.” In November, it will start suspending organizations that use violence, hateful imagery, hateful display names, and hateful symbols will be banned, unwanted sexual advances will be considered a violation, and an expanded definition and process for dealing with spambots will be put in place. It may not be enough.

It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly Twitter became so disgusting.

In 2013, I wrote a piece for the Daily Beast about celebrity fans armies, which seems really quaint now. Beliebers and members of #beyhive were swarming people who dissed their favorite artist, making life hell—or at least annoying, for people like the Black Lips’ Patrick Carney (who had a great sense of humor about it).

Then, I experienced a swarm firsthand. Waves upon waves of abuse, hurled at my feed during debates, and then, during a defense of an article I had written, an unending stream of invectives. A person I had interviewed had a virtual army of several thousands of people at her fingertips, and merely by having a debate with me online, conjured them to her defense and into an attack on me. It wasn’t necessarily on purpose that it happened, and she didn’t necessarily intend for that to be the outcome. But once the army is triggered it becomes a thing far outside anyone’s control. I felt helpless.

That person, who has an even greater Twitter following now, is more aware of her power. “As I’ve gotten more followers on here, I’ve tried to be more mindful of what could happen when I quote tweet someone, that it could be seen as a wink to followers to harass that person, and try to be more careful with those decisions,” she wrote me in a private message, asking to remain anonymous, because commenting publicly might, you know, stir the hive. “Twitter is great if used right, but it’s getting near unusable for a lot of people,” she added.

On Twitter, attempts to explain yourself or ask real questions or have an actual discussion are nearly impossible—you either get taken out of context, are called names, or stick a virtual foot in your mouth because you can’t write longer than 140 characters, and your Tweets don’t always make sense on their own, but must be viewed in context. People I respect have blocked me for things I couldn’t even properly explain (and couldn’t even DM them to have a one-on-one conversation). Twitter, instead of being a place where I learned about people who I didn’t know, has become a place where it is best to stick to my own walled-in garden.

Misogynistic trolls are to be expected. I knew they would come for me when I wrote “Amazon Is Killing My Sex Life.” And they did. Their insults were boring and lazy. But while conservative Twitter is filled with Russian bots, trolls, and just plain stupid people, factions of the hyper-PC Left are possibly worse, in particular in its treatment of what it deems to be less virtuous members of the Left. Certain segments of the Left have specialized in Victim Olympics, looking to be at the top of the totem pole in Ultimate Victimhood. If the person belongs to any marginalized class, on Twitter, everything they say must be exalted and held up as unassailable. Otherwise, anyone else who dares comment is a (fill-in-the-blank) racist, homophobic, ableist, transphobic, cisphobic, bigot.

In a piece for Yes magazine titled, “Why I’ve Started to Fear My Fellow Social Justice Activists,” Frances Lee first states her SJW bona fides: “I am queer, trans, Chinese American, middle class, and able-bodied” before she is able to launch her argument.

“Shutting down racist, sexist, and similar conversations protects vulnerable participants. But has it devolved into simply shutting down all dissenting ideas?,” Lee asks. “When these tactics are liberally applied, without limit, inside marginalized groups, I believe they hold back movements by alienating both potential allies and their own members.”

Jesse Singal, a contributing writer at New York magazine whom I follow on Twitter (but who doesn’t follow me back, sniffle) frequently speaks out against the shittiest parts of Twitter, and braves the hate. As he writes, “Twitter reliably turns every conversation or debate almost unimaginably imbecilic,” and the proceeds to role model exactly how that happens:

When I find myself or others embroiled in a Twitter shitstorm, I go back to the Rule of Tinder: Would you actually treat someone this way if you were in front of them, talking in real life? You wouldn’t.

Over 40,000 tweets later (FORTY! THOUSAND!) I’m still not very “good at Twitter.” I haven’t even cracked 4K followers, and I liken my participation in it to the time I took an improv comedy acting class years ago in New York. At one point during the performance with two semi-pros, I forgot I was supposed to be coming up with my own funny lines, and instead merely laughed passively at their genius. On Twitter, I sometimes do the same thing. I am the Queen of Retweets. I will retweet the shit out of you.

I still get some value out of it—I am still making new connections (Hi, Mike Freeman) learning new things, and being highly entertained by Twitter by memes like Fake Melania, or Ana Marie Cox’s stream of #Adorables cute animals at the end of a depressing week, or everything posted by Seahawks Twitter during game days. (Hi, @spikefriedman)!

But then, Trump has just tweeted something noxious and stupid and demonstrably wrong, and Twitter does fucking nothing about it (“As it has turned out, James Comey lied and leaked and totally protected Hillary Clinton. He was the best thing that ever happened to her!,” or “Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!”).

And, so this time I’ll retweet myself:

“Still thinks twitter is stupid.”

We urgently need your help! 

Covid-19 has dramatically impacted our ability to keep publishing. DAME is 100% reader funded and without additional support, we can’t keep publishing. Become a member at DAME today to help us continue reporting and shining a light on the stories that need to be told, from perspectives that aren’t heard enough. Every dollar we receive from readers goes directly into funding our journalism.   Please become a member today!

(If you liked this article and just want to make a one-time donation, you can do that here)

Become a member!