Attempting to understand why Twitter is so uniquely awful

What began as a digital salon has turned into an actual viper’s nest

Loren Smith
Jan 7 · 4 min read
Credit: Getty Images

Remember Justice Sacco? She’s ancient history, internet-wise. Way back in 2013, the PR executive Tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!” Clearly sarcastic, Sacco, to put it technically, got destroyed.

“How did we become unpaid shaming interns for companies that don’t care about us?,” Jon Ronson wrote in response to Saccogate in 2015, in The Guardian. He had made the mistake of coming to Sacco’s defence — and was himself trolled for it.

Now, these incidents wouldn’t make the news. They probably wouldn’t even make your feed. Twitter, far from containing the odd spat, has become the place to quibble. These are not polite remonstrations, however. More viper’s pit than 19th century salon, the platform seems to bring out the absolute worst in people, myself included.

Though I’ll start with an illustrative tale of someone else being a bitch: American writer ‘X’ (at the time of writing this, her Twitter following was 28,800). When I innocently posed a question in response to her tweet about skincare, she viciously swiped at me. When I asked her why she was being such an unnecessary hater, she followed with a one-two punch. Unfortunately, when you unfollow someone on Twitter, all communications between you and them are wiped (its defensive strategy?), so I don’t have proof. But believe me, it happened.

Proof — of sorts. A text to my boyfriend dated 6.10.18

A day post-biff, she announced she was joining The Atlantic as a staff writer. My heart sank. Clearly its editors didn’t know how mean she was? Worse still — maybe they didn't care either way.

I shared the news with my mother. She gave me the verbal equivalent of a sturdy hug: “she’s obviously insecure.” I nodded. Obviously.

X, of nasty tweet, now The Atlantic fame

As I prefaced, I am not immune to being a snake on Twitter. Not in an overt, bullish, X way, though. More in a nitpicking shrew kind of style. An example: I took acclaimed journalist Hanna Rosin to task over a piece she wrote for The Cut. In my view, she had done a disservice to journalism for blurring the line between fact and fiction, and I felt the need to proclaim this, publicly. Rosin had the grace, and, more likely, the lack of time or fucks to give, to not reply.

“I think my Twitter sparring habit is envy-induced,” I told my boyfriend on our regular walk from the train station to my house after work one day. He said the opposite of what I wanted to hear: “I think you’re right.” Turns out I gave it, but I couldn’t receive it.

Toxicity central

So, me and X — both insecure? Me because of my lack of followers? Her because of her erstwhile, seeming lack of full-time work? Perhaps. Also, unlike Facebook or Instagram, on Twitter, everything’s out there for everyone to see. This encourages a kind of professional exhibitionism or one-upmanship. Case in point: X’s response. Although my comment was completely innocuous, even flattering as it engaged with her original Tweet, she used it as an excuse to broadcast her ‘superior’ knowledge.

Does that fact that bitchiness is so pervasive on the platform mean that almost all of its users are similarly needy? It appears so. There’s a popular browser extension that hides metrics like likes and followers and retweets so that porcelain humans can shield themselves from its brutal reality.

Twitter is so toxic that even Redditors, known for antics like casual white supremacy, hate the platform. “Twitter is the most toxic shithole on the internet,” Boomspike posted in April. “Everytime i glimpse at twitter theres some sort of controversy going on with people attacking and insulting eachother.” Had Boomspike posted this on Twitter, his grammar definitely would’ve been corrected.

I considered that maybe it was just me, and other highly sensitive people, that couldn’t take the quippy heat. But it’s not. As I was writing this, viral queen Rosie Waterland threw in the Twitter towel because it “wasn’t worth the anxiety”. Will Poulter, of recent Bandersnatch fame, only lasted days. Such public displays of dissatisfaction have become so frequent that ‘quitting Twitter’ is now an aphorism. The fact that bully-in-chief Donald Trump is said to have ‘won’ Twitter perhaps says it all.

The expert take

“Most interesting is how the Twitter system acts to fill a deep psychological need in our society. The unfortunate reality is that we are a culture starved for real community”, Moses Ma opined in 2009, when Twitter was the ‘next big thing’.

His take was quickly eclipsed by those of researchers who studied the platform, who happened to endorse what I intuited. Far from creating communities, the average Twitter user’s belief “…that there is an audience interested in following one’s moment-to-moment postings suggests egocentrism, self-aggrandizement, and self-importance — the very characteristics of narcissistic individuals,” wrote psychologist Bruce McKinney in the journal Communication Research Reports in 2012.

But does narcissism necessarily denote meanness? Frequently. When a narcissist feels threatened, they brutally retaliate. Narcissist or not, when I unintentionally chipped away at X’s ego, she smashed me. I was looking for Ma’s ‘community’. Instead, I found hatred.

I remain fractured, yet wiser, shrouded in cold comfort. I’ve realised people like X aren’t the real bitch. Twitter is.

Loren Smith

Written by

Lawyer turned reporter turned rep. Fiction writer in progress.

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