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The problem with Twitter, as shown by the Sarah Jeong fracas

Behind our Twitter wars lies Twitter’s problems.

US president Donald Trump and the Twitter logo are seen in this photo illustration on December 1, 2017. Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

At National Review, Jonah Goldberg has a column on the Sarah Jeong fracas that is wrong in, I think, a useful way. He begins with an anecdote:

When I was a youngish teenager, I went to the bank one day. (This was pre-ATM machines, kids.) I stood in line behind a very old, very properly dressed white lady, complete with the sort of fancy hat that I still don’t know the proper name for. When she got to the teller, I didn’t pay attention at first but, very quickly, my ears perked up.

She earned my attention because this prim old woman was passionately raining racial epithets at the bank teller, who was an Asian-American woman. I have no idea what the bank teller’s specific ethnicity was. But the old lady seemed to roam the waterfront between “nips,” “gooks,” “slants,” etc.

“You damn gooks killed my husband and my son!” I distinctly remember her saying.

The moral, Goldberg says, is this: “The old lady was wrong to do what she did. She may have had plenty of rationalizations and explanations for why she tormented that young woman — but none of them added up to an excuse.”

Much of the Jeong furor has been about actually racist alt-right trolls weaponizing old tweets in bad faith to get an Asian woman fired from an important job. The New York Times refused to be cowed, and good for them. (Also do read my Vox Media colleagues at The Verge, who wrote a powerful statement condemning the cynicism of these tactics, and defending Jeong’s excellent work.)

But Goldberg’s piece traces another fault line in the Jeong debate, one that I see people of good faith struggling with even days after the initial frenzy, and that has implications far beyond this single controversy. Are Jeong’s tweets the equivalent of Goldberg’s old woman yelling racial slurs at a bank teller — that is to say, are they an actual expression of animus towards real people? Or are the critics making that argument engaged in an absurd form of literalism, refusing to recognize ironic discourse even though it’s been repeatedly pointed out to them?

Goldberg got to tell a story, so now I’d like to tell one. A few years ago, it became popular on feminist Twitter to tweet about the awful effects of patriarchal culture and attach the line #KillAllMen. This became popular enough that a bunch of people I know and hang out with and even love began using it in casual conversation.

And you know what? I didn’t like it. It made me feel defensive. It still makes me feel defensive. I’m a man, and I recoil hearing people I care about say all men should be killed.

But I also knew that wasn’t what they were saying. They didn’t want me put to death. They didn’t want any men put to death. They didn’t hate me, and they didn’t hate men. “#KillAllMen” was another way of saying “it would be nice if the world sucked less for women.” It was an expression of frustration with pervasive sexism. I didn’t enjoy the way they said it, but that didn’t mean I had to pretend I couldn’t figure out what they meant. And if I had any questions, I could, you know, ask, and actually listen to the answer.

Here’s the other thing, though: all that was happening inside my community, which both inclined me towards generosity, and gave me more context for what was going on. If I had been on the outside of it, perhaps my ultimate reaction would’ve been different, perhaps I would’ve let my initial offense drive my interpretation.

The same dynamic seems to me to be at play in the way “white people” is used in Jeong’s jokes. On social justice Twitter, the term means something closer to “the dominant power structure and culture” than it does to actual white people. To read “#CancelWhitePeople” and think Jeong is calling for genocide, as New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan apparently does, is absurd. And to sit around wondering how the social justice left would respond if you completely changed the context, intent, and meaning of the tweets by subbing in the names of different groups, well, read Zack Beauchamp on that.

But after reading take after take after take on the latest round of our ongoing Twitter wars, I’m struck by how inexplicable both sides seem to the other. To much of the right, it’s obvious that Jeong’s tweets represented anti-white racism in its purest form; to much of the left, it’s obvious they were jokes that anyone with an iota of self-awareness could parse, and the affront taken at them is pure bad faith.

Jeong’s statement seemed, to me, to offer a much more persuasive middle road: These were satirical tweets framed in a way that could reasonably offend people who didn’t understand the context for what they were reading:

The real villain here, as it so often is, is Twitter.


We’ve had a lot of Twitter dustups in recent months, and most of them seem to hinge on the same problem: We don’t know how to interpret what’s written on Twitter, and that’s been repeatedly weaponized by people who do know how to interpret what’s on Twitter.

Twitter is weird. A huge amount of what’s written there is metatextual commentary on other tweets intended for a knowing audience reading in a specific moment. It’s an ephemeral, self-referential mode of discourse that is unfortunately not ephemeral or tied to reference points at all — in fact, it’s designed to be broadcast, archived, searched, and embedded by anyone, in any context, at any point in the future.

There’s a term for this: It’s called “context collapse.” danah boyd, who may or may not have coined the term, explained it in a paper co-written with Alice Marwick:

Every participant in a communicative act has an imagined audience. Audiences are not discrete; when we talk, we think we are speaking only to the people in front of us or on the other end of the telephone, but this is in many ways a fantasy. (Social norms against eavesdropping show how ‘privacy’ requires the participation of bystanders.) Technology complicates our metaphors of space and place, including the belief that audiences are separate from each other. We may understand that the Twitter or Facebook audience is potentially limitless, but we often act as if it were bounded. Our understanding of the social media audience is limited. While anyone can potentially read or view a digital artifact, we need a more specific conception of audience than ‘anyone’ to choose the language, cultural referents, style, and so on that comprise online identity presentation.

We write for an audience we think we know, in a vernacular they’ll understand, using reference points they’re familiar with. Six years later, our tweets are weaponized to an audience we don’t know, thick with terms they understand differently, with the reference points completely absent.

There happened to be a particularly amusing bit of context collapse buried in this whole saga. One of Jeong’s most vocal critics was Sullivan, who wrote a slashing column accusing her of “eliminationist” rhetoric, among other sins. Turns out one of the tweets he was referencing was about him, though he didn’t know it and certainly didn’t take the time to trace it back and find out:

It’s not just context collapse, though. Part of constructing your community on Twitter is bounding it. Part of winning retweets and likes is sending missives your community will love. Given how human beings police group boundaries, that means making jokes only your friends understand, slamming common enemies, expressing sentiments in ways that signal group belonging.

Twitter is a medium that rewards us for snark, for sick burns, for edgy jokes and cruel comments that deepen the grooves of our group. And then it’s designed to make the sickest of those burns and the worst of those jokes go viral, reaching far beyond their intended audience, with untold consequences. That’s good for engagement on the platform, but it’s often bad for the people it happens to.

The canonical example is Justine Sacco, a PR executive who was bored during a 2013 layover at Heathrow and tweeted the bad joke, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” The tweet went viral, Sacco’s name was trending nationally as she was in the air, and she’d lost her job by the time she landed.

Sacco’s joke fell flat (clearly), but it was meant as a commentary on privilege for an audience of people she thought she knew, whom she thought would read her generously. Then, of course, it was flung across the world, to audiences that didn’t know her and had no interest in reading her generously, and it upended her life.

In the aftermath, the internet has more or less admitted that it went way too far with that one, and some of the instigators apologized. But we’ve learned few of the lessons, as the recent James Gunn fiasco proved.

Twitter is not your friend. It is built to reward us for snarky in-group communication and designed to encourage unintended out-group readership. It fosters both tribalism and tribal collision. It seduces you into thinking you’re writing for one community but it gives everyone the ability to search your words and project them forward in time and space and outward into another community at the point when it’ll do you maximum damage. It leaves you explaining jokes that can’t be explained to employers that don’t like jokes anyway.

And it’s not just what we write. It’s what we see. Our feeds are filled with reasonable, funny, thoughtful comments from our groups and the most unreasonable, offensive tweets sent by our out-groups.

If you’re a conservative, the liberal tweets that get shot into your sightline aren’t the most thoughtful or representative missives; they’re the ones designed to make you think liberals hate you, are idiots, or both. The same is true if you’re a liberal: you see the worst of the right, not the best. And after you’ve seen enough of these kinds of comments from the other side, you begin to think that’s who they are, that you’re getting a true picture of what your opponents are really like, and what they really think of you — but it’s not a true picture, it’s a distortion built to deepen your attachment to your friends, your resentment of your opponents, and your engagement on the platform. And it’s one that plays on our tendencies to read the other side with much less generosity than we read our own side.

The very first tweet was sent in 2006. This is a young medium, and over time, we’ll (hopefully) figure it out — how to interpret it, how to couch it, how to delete old tweets automatically. But for now, the lesson is clear: #NeverTweet.

Podcast: The Great Twitter Wars of 2018

On the Weeds podcast, Jane Coaston and Dylan Matthews join Ezra to discuss the Sarah Jeong fracas, the Ben Shapiro-Mark Duplass meltdown, the problems with Twitter, the ways partisan dehumanize each other, and more. Listen here, or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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