Two weeks ago, I saw a tweet that was written, I believe, with the sole purpose of annoying me. It wasn’t just a bad take; there are a lot of those on the internet. This one happened to nail all of my Personal Qualms With Society Today. It was indicative of all the little ways things seemed to be getting increasingly bad out there, and — as these tweets always are — was dripping with smarminess.
The tweet, which I will not be linking to for reasons that will become clear, argued that if you see someone filming a video of themselves in public, you should wait for them to be done before walking past the camera and ruining their video. “If you can’t do this then you don’t deserve to be part of a civilized society,” it read. This would be a fairly reasonable argument (within the context of standard internet hyperbolism) had the video in question not been filmed on a subway platform just as a train was entering the station. These supposedly rude, heartless people walking in front of the camera had, literally, nowhere else to go.
I could list everything that pissed me off about this tweet, not least the writer’s follow-up reply that used the attractiveness of the girl in the video as a way to justify her behavior (and then resorted to classism by insulting people who can’t “afford a bigger car” and therefore were “crowding the trains”): It presents itself as a fundamentally pro-social opinion — that you should be considerate in public — without considering the safety of the 99 percent of people on the subway platform who weren’t taking videos of themselves in a crowded space; it prioritizes the desires of the person using public transit as a backdrop over the needs of the people using it for getting to where they were going; it attempts to dignify fundamentally undignified behavior (you should, I firmly believe, be at least a little embarrassed to take pictures of yourself no matter where you are, but especially when it inconveniences others). Worst, it reads as an appeal to the value of politeness and sociability while arguing for its exact opposite. “This is how societies end,” said the tweet, as if people’s annoyance that some random lady’s TikTok was more important than their safe commute was akin to the sacking of Rome. “No no,” I thought, “this, in fact, is how societies end.”
I’d already lost, obviously. The tweet had got me, and getting got by bad tweets is loser behavior. So I’m writing this as a reminder to myself, but also as a reminder to the nearly 20,000 people who quote-tweeted it: You simply have to ignore discourse bait.
Discourse bait, after all, was what that tweet was, because discourse bait is everywhere. Discourse bait is people writing articles about fake social blights like “microcheating” because they know people will click on it, or 14-year-olds making TikToks about how they don’t think sex scenes should be in movies because it makes them uncomfortable (they’re 14, of course sex makes them uncomfortable!). Discourse bait is when someone comments on a recipe for bean soup asking what to do if they “don’t like beans” and everyone is like, “then why the fuck are you watching the video?” and it becomes a whole thing. It is discourse bait when people get really angry about “girl [insert thing]” or any other supposed internet trend that means nothing and will disappear in five minutes.
Much like TikTok trends and viral tweets, none of these people’s opinions matter. If social media did not exist and we still had some semblance of cultural gatekeeping in the form of an authoritative, centralized mass media, you would never know that there are people out there who look around at other people and think they might actually be “NPCs” or that people raised exclusively on solipsistic Tumblr discourse see a five-year age gap in a consenting adult relationship as inherently problematic because of the “power dynamic.” You would never know these things because the amount of people who believe them is not statistically significant.
But now these people have found themselves with cultural power. Now whenever one of them wants to say something publicly, there springs an entire gold rush of reactions and replies and comments and quote-tweets and stitches that basically amount to, “Whoa, look at what this one random person believes! Can you believe how wrong she is?” It’s an understandable impulse: People engage in discourse bait because it feels good to be correct in public, but also because they are rewarded for it. There is a reason people are paying $8 a month for a blue “verified” badge on the website formerly known as Twitter, and it’s because the things they say are imbued with a (paid-for) sheen of status and authoritative heft. With the chance to go viral and, depending on which platform you’re on, reap actual money for views, even regular users can cash in on controversy.
You’re not supposed to say this next part because if the internet is a push and pull between tech founders and the regular folks who make up their platforms, you’re supposed to be on the side of the people. But I’m going to say it anyway: Making money on the internet by engaging in discourse bait is bad and embarrassing.
JUST WALKED OUT OF JEREMYS PLACE IN DA MIDDLE OF A STORY pic.twitter.com/G781iJuepW— dasharez0ne.bsky.social (@dasharez0ne) March 30, 2018
There’s a meme I love of a skeleton mid-run. “JUST WALK OUT! You can leave!!!” it reads, and then, in list format: “work, social thing, movies, home, dentist, clothes shoppi, too fancy weed store, cops if your quick, friend ships: IF IT SUCKS ... HIT DA BRICKS!! Real winners quit.” I think of it most often in terms of paying attention to algorithmic social media. Never do we have more power over the platforms than when we simply say “who cares” and close the tab.
Because the platforms will never stop rewarding discourse bait. At the risk of sounding like the NPC conspiracy theory woman, the people in charge of them want us to stay angry at each other’s bad ideas instead of them, the ones who make money from every second we remain cringing and tense on our phones. “Divisiveness drives engagement, which in turn drives advertising revenues,” reads a review of Max Fisher’s The Chaos Machine, a book about the ways in which algorithmic social media has stoked hyperpartisanship and anger and made a few men very rich. Pretty much everyone who uses social media knows this on some level, but it’s still worth the regular reminder: It is advantageous to those with real power for regular people to actively hate each other and for our attitudes toward our fellow humans to grow ever more antisocial until the only people we trust don’t come with all the messiness and idiosyncrasies of actual people and only exist on screens. Discourse bait, by capitalizing on our worst, most myopic and individualist impulses, is making us less human and making it easier for moneyed interests to exploit us. And this, I would argue to my dear subway station etiquette tweeter, is how societies end.
There are so many fun things to do on the internet. You can spend your time curating beautiful Pinterest wedding boards even if you have no intention of getting married. You can watch that History of Japan video for the zillionth time. You can have a glass of wine and reply enthusiastically to the Instagram Stories of everyone you know. You can play Wordle or Worldle or Heardle or Semantle, you can read dozens of the best, most impressive, change-the-way-you-think-about-everything long-form journalism from the year 2012 to 2021, or watch mediocre SNL sketches from 2007. Anything, truly anything, is a better use of your time than getting upset that a stranger somewhere disagrees with you. And if you do disagree with me, be normal about it and talk shit in a group chat.
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