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Forget Elon Musk. Maybe the Problem with Twitter Is You

No technical fix can remove the stress that comes with putting your opinions out into the world. And if you can’t handle that stress, you need to log off.

· 6 min read
Forget Elon Musk. Maybe the Problem with Twitter Is You
Jason Goodman / Unsplash

These last few days have had me thinking a lot about a particularly sharp bit of second-season dialogue from that underrated NBC comedy, Superstore. The main characters are taking turns reading scathing Yelp reviews of their workplace (which is basically a fictionalized version of Walmart). “Yeah, 99 percent of the Internet is just people tearing other people down,” laments Jonah Simms (Ben Feldman), the show’s highly progressive and intellectually self-satisfied straight man. “It’s actually why I’m considering leaving social media.”

“Just do it, already,” responds the hilariously bitchy Mateo Liwanag (Nico Santos). “You don’t get points for talking about it.” (Their co-worker Cheyenne then adds, “My friend Corona sells her pee on the Internet”—which will strike you either as an outstanding bonus joke, or a grotesque non sequitur depending on whether you’ve seen the show or not.)

Superstore characters Jonah, Mateo, and Cheyenne. 

Since Elon Musk marched into Twitter headquarters last week, some version of this Jonah-Mateo exchange has played out on thousands of threads, often according to the same pattern. In Act One, some worthy personality will tweet earnestly about how awful it is to remain on a Musk-sullied online platform, while also suggesting, vaguely, that the associated psychic pain may lead this esteemed figure to delete his or her account altogether. In Act Two, followers beg their disconsolate alpha to remain on Twitter so that they may continue combining forces against the evil Muskovians. Then in Act Three, the pity party gets crashed by Mateo-esque smart-alecks, who unleash a fusillade of mean-girl memes into the replies. A popular one these days is: “This isn’t an airport. You don’t have to announce your departures.”

Such vignettes capture the core dysfunctionality of Twitter: Everyone thinks the place would be great, if only we could be rid of all those other guys. For doctrinaire progressives, the preferred means for doing so has always been top-down censorship (or, if you prefer, “community standards”). But that dream has now been crushed: Even if Musk doesn’t eliminate content moderation altogether, he’s never going to give the Jonah Simms crowd anything near the bubble-wrapped social-media experience they want. That’s why these goodbye-cruel-Twitter threads have such a glum, self-pitying quality to them. It’s one thing to put up with dissenting opinions. It’s another thing to know that you’ll always have to put up with them.

Since I can remember, the most popular subject on Twitter has been the terribleness of Twitter. And wrapped up in this endless kvetching is often the wistful conceit that things were once different—that there was some golden era when Twitter was cheery and uplifting. But as someone who’s been using the service regularly for more than a decade, I can attest that such a period never existed.

Yes, things got more agitated in recent years because of the proliferation of bots, fake accounts, Donald Trump, the cult-like nature of the Great Awokening, and the mentally and emotionally destabilizing effects of COVID lockdowns. But even in Twitter’s early days, the experience was always tense. There are hundreds of millions of people on Twitter who don’t know you, and don’t care about your feelings. And no matter how careful you are about saying the right thing, there’s always a chance that some of them will think that what you have to say is stupid (or, worse, insensitive). Even if they never come for you, it’s always in the back of your mind that they could. And this isn’t a problem that Musk, or anyone else, can solve with a set of technical fixes.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my friends who complain loudest about Twitter usually can’t really articulate why they’re on the platform at all—beyond the fact that their peers are on Twitter, and that gaining a lot of followers is seen as a marker of status. So they just kind of mope around on the site in an aimless way, absent-mindedly tweeting or retweeting odds and ends that seem to accord with their worldview (or, more precisely, the worldview that they imagine is expected of them). In this way, they end up experiencing all the usual anxieties that attend Twitter usage, but without ever getting a level of attention or stature that accords with their intellect and real-life accomplishments.

Naturally, they conclude that the fault must lie with the platform itself. And many then spend much of their time curating block lists, hoping that this will solve the problem. In some cases, these lists can be useful crutches as a means to self-protect from truly abusive individuals. But in general, when you block someone, you’re sending the message to others (and to yourself) that third parties have the power to get under your skin and affect your self-esteem (which is why I don’t block anyone on Twitter). If that’s the case, it’s a sign you might not be a good fit for Twitter in the first place.

By contrast, the people I know who get the most satisfaction out of Twitter generally are capable of explaining what it is about the experience that they find professionally useful. Their utilitarian understanding of the medium lets them manage online life in a compartmentalized, arm’s-length way. They don’t make the mistake of blurring the Twitter experience (or the platform’s associated status hierarchies) with the business of navigating real human existence. And their self-esteem doesn’t soar or plunge based on how they’re treated by Twitter on any given day.

One trick here is to make sure you never take Twitter too seriously. The people who always seem the most joyless and angry tend to be those high priests who present themselves on Twitter as guardians of sacred truths, while expecting their followers to play the role of obedient parishioners. Since nothing is sacred on Twitter, their sermons predictably attract mockery and criticism. That mockery and criticism, in turn, becomes the priest’s dominant subject of complaint, thereby setting off more cycles of pontification, derision, and self-pity. No wonder they’re always so “exhausted.”

In my case, Twitter is mostly for telling jokes and satirizing sanctimonious blowhards. I also use it to get the word out about a whole grab bag of subjects—food, sports, canine hair care—that I don’t have much opportunity to write about in my day-to-day journalism. I’ve always been a ham at heart, and I love doing Twitter shtick precisely because the format—especially the quote-tweet—mimics the timeless comic cadence of straight-man setup followed by punch line. Since satire is a fun and effective way of communicating my ideas about the world, Twitter serves my functional needs well. But no matter how many likes and retweets I get, I remember that I’m essentially just a hack looking for a laugh, not a sage dispensing ancient wisdom.

For others (and me, occasionally), Twitter is about selling products, promoting articles, books, and podcasts, raising awareness about pet causes, venting about the local sports team, and a hundred other tasks besides. But the same principle applies in all these cases: At its best, Twitter is an online tool to help you achieve some defined goal in the offline world. It doesn’t have any value in and of itself, and the electronic baubles we win from strangers on Twitter can’t be redeemed for the love and respect of the friends and family whose opinions should actually matter to us.

If Twitter helps you achieve concrete goals, that’s great. But if it doesn’t, well, learning that fact can be useful, too—since it lets you know that maybe now’s a good time to log off for good.

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