For those of us that are old enough to remember rotary phones and Columbia House music for a penny, we remember a time when everything was slower. Television news was on once or twice a day and the Sunday newspaper was thick enough to use as a step stool. Back then, it took a long time for news to travel and for movements to pick up speed. Things like Watergate or Iran-Contra unraveled slowly, over a long period of time.
That’s no longer the case.
Now, everything is instantaneous and the dumb things people used to say to one another in their private lives are now said on a public platform that stretches across the globe. We see how Twitter has changed the world almost on a daily basis.
I find it astounding just how important Twitter has become to life, particularly in the United States. It’s fun for jokes and music releases and live-tweeting sporting events or award shows, but it affects the country in profound ways, from the economy to national security to pop culture and sports. The latter two may seem minor in comparison, but they are billion dollar industries that are a real part of the national conversation.
In just the past week, Twitter was the impetus for a federal lawsuit against the sitting U.S. president, the cancellation of a highly-rated network television show, and the possible firing of an executive of a professional sports franchisethat is worth over a billion dollars. Those last two happened on the same day.
I’m not even sure how we got here.
Do you remember the early days of Twitter?
It was like short dispatches or diary entries of mundane, everyday events. It was not surprising to see “Just made myself a sandwich” or “On our way to a BBQ!” show up in your timeline. In fact, they were the norm. It was boring and harmless. Ashton Kutcher had the most followers. It was like a community wall in a college dorm that people just wrote on and kept moving.
It wasn’t important. It didn’t matter.
I joined in April, 2009 and, more than anything, I used it as my outlet to say and write the things that I couldn’t say in polite company or on Facebook, away from most of the people in my real life. I used it to be silly and try to be funny. Much of it could probably be categorized as offensive or, at the very least, “problematic.” I meant no harm, but in retrospect I can see how they could have been taken when read on a screen. I was fortunate that I had only about seven followers and, frankly, Twitter was different back then.
The coolest thing about it was that you could interact with anyone from all over the globe. Even people you couldn’t dream of getting near in the past could now respond to you.
At some point along the line, it exploded in popularity. Then, shortly afterwards, it just become a cesspool of viciousness and anger, an echo chamber of people writing horrific things about each other while using memes to bolster their arguments. The responses to most tweets immediately make me want to log off and take a shower. When it became political, it turned into a microcosm of the partisan divide. In fact, mean tweets became so prevalent, particularly towards Barack Obama, that they’ve become a staple of a late-night comedy talk show.
Despite how one feels about Donald Trump, it is inarguable that he understood the potential of Twitter relatively early on and harnessed its power into a weapon that he used to his advantage over and over again. When he was elected, pundits thought he’d put the phone down, but he continues to use the platform to antagonize other world leaders and call members of his electorate “losers” and “haters” and “phonies” while occupying the Oval Office. It hasn’t ruined his career — yet — but it has ruined careers for others, like Rex Tillerson, and has caused Trump some problems that could have been avoided if he clicked “Drafts” as opposed to “Tweet.”
Sometimes things just catch the public’s attention and we become a giant online community discussing the same thing at the same time, like the colors of a dress, the sounds of a robot recording, a kid asking for a year of free chicken nuggets, Jordan vs. Lebron, or, you know, a television star’s Ambien-fueled racist remarks and a sports executive’s allegedly anonymous crusade to smear his predecessor.
It isn’t only celebrities or politicians that have created their own downfall via the little blue bird. Plenty of regular folks have lost their jobs because of something they wrote. Remember Justine Sacco? She was rightfully dragged for making a dumb, tone-deaf, racist joke before hopping on a plane.
Of course, it went viral. While that plane was in mid-air, her tweet raced around the world and she stoked the ire of seemingly millions. It also became a voyeuristic event in which the world (or so it seemed) mocked her and shouted at her account while she was completely unaware, an updated version of The Truman Show, but with an edge:
The furor over Sacco’s tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment. Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc. As Sacco’s flight traversed the length of Africa, a hashtag began to trend worldwide: #HasJustineLandedYet. “Seriously. I just want to go home to go to bed, but everyone at the bar is SO into #HasJustineLandedYet. Can’t look away. Can’t leave” and “Right, is there no one in Cape Town going to the airport to tweet her arrival? Come on, Twitter! I’d like pictures #HasJustineLandedYet.”
A Twitter user did indeed go to the airport to tweet her arrival. He took her photograph and posted it online. “Yup,” he wrote, “@JustineSacco HAS in fact landed at Cape Town International. She’s decided to wear sunnies as a disguise.”
By the time Sacco had touched down, tens of thousands of angry tweets had been sent in response to her joke. Hannah, meanwhile, frantically deleted her friend’s tweet and her account — Sacco didn’t want to look — but it was far too late. “Sorry @JustineSacco,” wrote one Twitter user, “your tweet lives on forever.”
Your tweet lives on forever.
This time in history has been referred to as the disposable culture, but I maintain that the opposite is actually true, if only because everything is cached or screenshotted or saved forever until it’s time for it to be used against someone or something. There are unseen armies out there, from all over the ideological and socioeconomic spectrum, just lurking, waiting for you to slip up so that they can use it against you.
Twitter, like texting, is a written medium. Yes, many people choose to express themselves in the form of gifs and emojis, but the real damage is done with words. Words on a screen. Words without inflection or context. Words, often, written without forethought.
Have you ever impulsively tweeted something only to regret a minute or even a second later? I certainly have. I hate reading my old tweets. I cringe when I see them and can’t imagine composing them. It feels like they were written by someone else because they were — a younger, dumber version of me with whom I no longer identify or sometimes even understand.
Why can’t we stop ourselves?
One reason is that technology, and social media in particular, is designed to be addictive. It taps into a part of our brain that makes us instinctively reach for our phones every five seconds and, if we see something that upsets us, respond to it immediately and with as much animus and vitriol as we can muster.
The other reason is that it allows us to be heard by the masses, if only for moment. Seeing something you wrote get retweeted and shared and discussed is intoxicating. There aren’t many scoreboards in everyday life, but when you check your phone, you see those numbers going up — your score keeps increasing. That’s dangerous, because it makes a person begin chasing that high, pushing the boundaries in hopes of touching another nerve.
So, the next time you decide you’re going to vent all of your anger and frustrations with your employer by tweeting or you’re going to say that politically incorrect comment that you know is hilarious, take a moment to reconsider.
After all, are a hundred thousand retweets worth your career and your livelihood?
Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.