Close readers of this newsletter will notice that I’ve been pretty down on Twitter lately. Twitter makes it impossible to think. It rewards “hysterical criticism.” There has been a debate inside my head for months about how to keep the worst of that platform at arm’s length, while maintaining enough of a presence to build an audience for the book I’m writing. I don’t think I can pull that off. I need more than arm’s length. Twitter is bad for me, bad for millions of its users, and bad for our public discourse. It’s a nuisance property, but there’s no way to get the city to shut it down. I may just have to stay away.
I think of Twitter as a terrible, rowdy bar where you’re likely to get punched in the face for no reason by a sloppy drunk, but you keep going back because that’s where your friends hang out. Twitter is filled with angry idiots, but it also has a few genuinely thoughtful and funny people I enjoy being around. As I wrote in November, it even can be a site for spiritual insight, challenge, and growth. I recently gave a talk at a local Lutheran church because I met its pastor through Twitter. I have met numerous others in person who I met through Twitter. They’re great.
The problem is that on Twitter itself, you can’t really avoid the idiots, and they kind of ruin everything around them. What’s worse, being around all those idiots is turning otherwise sensible people into idiots. Everyone is worse because the worst actors have so much influence.
This morning, I felt like this was it. I needed to get out. It was a straw. The last straw? Maybe. Let me explain.
A political scientist, Julia Azari, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post about ranked-choice voting in Presidential primaries. I could summarize her argument here, but that’s not the point. The point is, she made her case based on her expertise and put it out there. If not for one crucial aspect of the article, relatively few people would have noticed it, and hardly anyone would have gone mad with rage over it.
The problem was the headline. Authors do not get to decide their own headlines. (They usually don’t even get to decide the titles of their books.) Editors do. Headline-writing is its own art, one that editors have a lot of practice with but ordinary writers don’t. When I file a piece, I often don’t bother suggesting a headline at all.
Here was the headline to Azari’s op-ed: “It’s time to give the elites a bigger say in choosing the president.”
The headline is inflammatory. It represents an awful, anti-democratic opinion. If that were what Azari was arguing, then yes, that’s a terrible opinion to have. But it’s not her opinion. She wasn’t talking about the general election, and she wasn’t arguing for cutting voters out of the primary system but rather lifting up the nuances of their preferences. But through carelessness or malice, the headline writer wrote something that did not represent what Azari was saying and that was bound to attract a flood of outrage. The headline has since been changed, but the damage was done.
Bad-faith people on Twitter like Ken Klippenstein (a reporter for The Nation), Yashar Ali (somtime contributor to HuffPost and New York magazine), and John Cusack (say it aint’ so, Lloyd Dobler!) posted screenshots of the headline, including the Post’s motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” as evidence that the Post just wants oligarchy. Those disingenuous tweets got retweeted thousands of times and drew thousands of outraged comments. It was obvious that no one had read the article.
Some guy with 17 Twitter followers got 1,200 likes for posting a screenshot of the confirmation page for his subscription cancellation. I guess he may as well have cancelled, since he wasn’t reading it anyway.
In addition to the online hate Azari is getting, it’s likely that people are calling her dean and demanding she be fired. People are probably sending her death threats. That’s what happens when people get really mad about an op-ed, especially one written by a woman. Despite it all, she is putting up a strong front online.
Azari should rightfully be screaming at the editor who let that headline go up. It’s also infuriating that Klippenstein and Ali, who work in media and should know better, stoked this outrage. They did it anyway. They got their likes, their RTs, and they moved on. Maybe even gained a few followers. Azari, meanwhile, will be dealing with angry emails and calls for days at least. Fuck those guys.
(Again, this is why “punch up, don’t punch down,” so much espoused on Twitter, is such a stupid moral maxim. Which way is up in this case, and which down? Who has more power? The political science prof quite possibly writing for the princely sum of $0.00 [what I made for a Post op-ed in 2016]? The reporter taking four seconds to post a screenshot to a half-million followers? The hundreds of people telling Azari she’s trash because of something she didn’t actually write? What looks like up is often actually down.)
I recently read Dayna Tortorici’s essay on quitting Twitter and then spending more time on Instagram (which led to a whole different set of problems). It reminded me of the earlier n+1 editorial, “Against the Rage Machine,” on why social media is awful:
We ought to be selective about who deserves our good faith. Some people duke it out to solve problems. Others pick fights for the spectacle, knowing we’ll stick around to watch. In the meantime they’ll sell us refreshments, as we loiter on the sideline, waiting to see which troll will out-troll his troll.
Many of my favorite writers are either not on Twitter at all, or have a very slight presence. Needless to say, Annie Dillard is not on Twitter. Others are pulling away. Rebecca Schuman left. Sandra Newman left. (Counterpoint: Lauren Oyler is back.)
My problem is that while other people were mad at Azari for a second or ten minutes, I’ve been mad at them all day. They win, I lose. So I decided I should avoid the near occasion of sin. I changed my password to something I could never remember. I didn’t deactivate my account, but I do need to get away so I can stop being mad at the people who are always mad.
I can’t guarantee I’ll leave forever. After all, the smartest and funniest people are still there: Howard Mittelmark, JesusOfNaz316, Elisa Gabbert, Willy Staley. I have no other way to pull a chair up close to their barstool and listen to them hold court.
I wasn’t planning to write a newsletter today. Look for another one in early March, when I will have a new essay on regret in the next issue of the Hedgehog Review. If you liked what I wrote here, click the “Share” button below and share it. Reply if you want to get in touch. I’m bad at replying, but I’ll try to be better.
Thanks for reading,