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The year of bad posts

Social media always sort of sucks. In 2020, it was insufferable.

All of us, all year long.
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Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

It was supposed to be a joke about candy. On November 30, Alison Leiby, a 37-year-old comedian and TV writer, was in the middle of moving apartments when she sent a tweet that would make her the website’s main character of the day. In layman’s terms, that meant she’d done something horribly wrong and everyone was talking about it.

“People who live outside of NYC and don’t have bodegas,” she began, “where do you go to buy two Diet Cokes, a roll of paper towels, and oh also lemme get some peanut butter m&ms since I’m here, why not.”

Leiby would like you to know that yes, she has heard of CVS before. The intent of the joke, she says, was not, “Where do you hillbillies even go to buy food?” it was, “Where do you do your impulse candy purchasing?” This, however, is not the way the internet received it.

She doesn’t know which single retweet was the one to elevate it into a platform-wide discourse, but within an hour or two, the replies had grown from 8,000, to 10,000, then 20,000 (as of publication time, more than 21,000 people have quote-tweeted it and another 20,000 have replied).

The most common responses were to the effect of “Literally any place with a cash register” or sarcastic quips about, say, Floridians having to wade miles through swamps and braving alligators to get to the nearest Publix. The ordeal, of course, got its own name: #Bodegagate.

Would a tweet like this have generated such a storm in any other year? Maybe, because people on the internet are always outraged over something. But it is undeniable that the tone of internet discourse during the months of the pandemic has changed. In this year of tragedy, of dramatic social and political upheaval, of loneliness, fear, and boredom, the rules about what is or is not acceptable to say or do online are being litigated in real time. The result is that nobody seems to know what the hell they’re doing.

“Will my friends judge me if I share photos from my weekend getaway to an Airbnb?” “Am I a bad person if I posted a black square during the Black Lives Matter protests?” “Do I need to know or care about what ‘The Letter’ is and should I tweet about it?”

Posting on social media and thereby inviting potential criticism is always somewhat of a risk, but this year the stakes felt unfathomably high. To be online in 2020 was to be confronted by an infinite scroll of confounding, cringeworthy, or otherwise outrageous opinions that, in any other moment, may have been relegated to an off-hand comment at happy hour with friends. Instead, we screamed it into the digital void, allowing those sometimes-terrible, sometimes-merely-inelegant missives to travel far wider than they ever should have. Welcome to the year of bad posts.

In fairness to all of the bad posts mentioned hereafter, pandemics sort of make us lose our minds. Multiple studies of quarantined people have shown that separation from loved ones can deteriorate our mental health in ways that may include stress, depression, irritability, insomnia, fear, confusion, anger, frustration, and boredom. Young people, those who live alone, and those with chronic health conditions are at a greater risk for these things; one US study from April and May showed that nearly two-thirds of people under 30 had high levels of loneliness and that 37 percent said they had low support from family.

The first inkling that this year would bring a barrage of insufferable discourse began before any US lockdowns did. As signs about hand-washing were going up in workplaces and the idea that toilet paper was maybe going to become a valuable commodity was starting to enter the public consciousness, a certain kind of voice reigned supreme: the scold.

To a certain extent, scolding can provide a net benefit to society in times where individual behavior does need to be policed for the greater good — wearing masks and social distancing are matters of personal choice, after all. But there is a limit. Supposed rule-breakers who dared to venture to a park or the beach were scolded in the media and online using misleading camera lenses that made everyone appear closer together. Women in hazmat suits screamed at joggers in Central Park, even while in Missouri it was still technically legal to attend a concert. As lockdowns began to add to the strain of working families, parents online scolded the childless for their perceived privilege; child-free people scolded companies for giving parents more time to care for their children.

In the first few months, it seemed as though there was no right way to live. With what seemed like a total lack of government support or consistent directives, individuals took it upon themselves to make their own rules and demanded that everyone else follow the same ones.

At the same time as we were told that Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity and Shakespeare wrote King Lear during pandemics, and therefore we too should spend this uniquely terrifying time contributing great works to society, the rest of the internet was telling us that to be productive in quarantine really means you are being a slave to capitalism. While many of us turned to soothing hobbies like Animal Crossing or bread baking, one woman suggested that buying flour at the store was akin to “literally taking food from my mouth” because she chooses to make all of her own bread from scratch.

And these were only the most trivial of early-quarantine discourses. The social justice reckonings sparked by the police killing of George Floyd made social media another space for both rampant public shaming and extremely unwise posting habits. Viral activist slideshows made Instagram a minefield: A well-intentioned infographic about racism could come across as performative if someone had never posted political statements before, but to say nothing as a non-Black person could be perceived as “white silence.” The aesthetically pleasing illustrations of police brutality victims and Spark Notes-style explainers on complex topics like “defund the police” accelerated their virality, even when the content contained misinformation or collapsed the context with which they were created.

Similarly, when companies and influencers inevitably got called out for their callousness in light of racist behavior or ill-treatment of employees, Instagram was filled with slickly designed apologies articulating a commitment to “do better,” ironically all the while capitalizing on the aesthetics and mood of the moment with little concrete action attached.

No flashpoint better illustrated this tension than #BlackoutTuesday, which began as an online movement within the entertainment industry where workers could pause and reflect on the ways in which the music business has profited off of Black artists. Within hours, the hashtag was co-opted by white celebrities and trickled down to the masses, divorced from its original intent. In the midst of history-making protests in which Instagram was critical for sharing information between activists, the entire platform was overrun with white users posting mostly contextless black squares. By attempting to show their support for Black Lives Matter, these posts ended up drowning out crucial communication between people actually doing the groundwork.

The level of care devoted to decisions about what to post and what not to trickled down to our most innocuous activities, be they images of small gatherings within “pods” or an expensive cheese plate, becoming complicated in the context that the posters were enjoying themselves while lots of people were suffering. This anecdote from The Cut editor-in-chief Stella Bugbee is one such example:

“I  remember getting a text from a friend criticizing someone for documenting their exercise habits on Instagram. Normally she wouldn’t have cared, but now the depictions of their outdoorsy life felt tone-deaf. The exchange made me wonder if my posts were the subject of such texts. I shared a beautiful spread of food, only to take it off my Instagram Stories a few hours later, lest it be seen as insensitive to those who were suffering food insecurity. And even as I was having that thought, I knew it wasn’t just that I was afraid of causing pain directly but also of appearing unaware that some people were experiencing food insecurity.”

Imagine going through this range of confusion and anxiety over a picture of food — and yet, it makes sense. One could argue that any way we can find happiness in the face of tragedy says something wonderful about humanity, but you could just as easily question how someone is able to enjoy luxurious dinners while bail funds and food banks desperately need money. There is a case to be made that each of us has the personal responsibility to perform the seriousness of the moment or risk being seen as a “Brunch Democrat,” someone whose commitment to politics only exists insofar as it affects the privileged.

Fittingly, the worst posting offenders this year were the wealthy: A-listers who felt that the pandemic was the perfect time to make an uncomfortable video of themselves singing “Imagine,” Kardashians who treated their inner circle to private island getaways and birthday blowouts while swearing it was done safely, a Netflix rom-com star suggesting on Instagram Live that people are going to die of Covid-19 anyway, so what’s the big deal, not to mention Madonna’s notoriously unsettling bathtub video in which the pop icon, covered in gemstones and rose petals, claimed the virus was “the great equalizer.”

There is no precedent for a time like this, which is how we end up with lots of Instagrams of people posing with friends and masks couched in mealy-mouthed captions like, “before you say anything, we all tested negative!”, which just feels embarrassing for everyone involved. If the decision was so difficult to make, why post at all?

Perhaps you are starting to see why a rather sapless tweet about bodegas created such a fervent pile-on, or maybe you need more pandemic examples of people going absolutely bananas over objectively trivial debates online. All of the discourses listed below have received far too much attention as it is, and I include them here not to add to the dogpile or make some sort of bad-faith statement about “woke” PC culture gone too far, but to illustrate the particular wackiness that was the internet in 2020.

Here are just a few of the things people argued about this year:

  • When one scientist tweeted that the “most overhyped animal” was the roundworm, others compared his opinion to bias against marginalized groups.
  • A single TikTok reignited the neverending debate about whether a man owning a copy of Infinite Jest makes him morally suspect.
  • Charcuterie boards were deemed “the definition of bourgeoisie decadence” and therefore “not part of leftist praxis.” (So were cast iron skillets.)
  • When the term “himbo,” or a hot and kind yet unintelligent man, went viral, one woman argued that the term was predatory because being interested in someone’s lack of intellect was comparable to being sexually attracted to children.
  • Another recurring debate about what makes someone a pedophile: being attracted to short women.
  • When the actor Elliot Page came out as trans, some viewed it as a loss for lesbians and a symptom of compulsory heterosexuality.
  • 16-year-old TikTok star Charli D’Amelio was told to commit suicide because she seemed rude in a video with a family friend.
  • People bemoaned the “erased queerness” of Anne Frank, whom some believed was bisexual.
  • When New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin was fired for exposing himself during a work Zoom, some defended his actions using comparisons to corporate micromanagement or prison abolitionism.
  • One author argued that when someone is less interested in another person and still has sex with them, that the sex was not consensual (later immortalized as the “ghosting is rape” tweet).
  • It was suggested that sex under communism should be considered mutual aid.

Arguably the most divisive and most needlessly drawn-out discourse was centered around the nature of discourse itself. In July, Harper’s magazine published an open letter calling for free speech and an end to cancel culture, signed by some of the world’s most prominent thinkers: Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, David Brooks, Steven Pinker, Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, Cornel West, and Fareed Zakaria among them.

The backlash was immediate. Critics claimed that the argument of “The Letter” was not actually about free speech but about power, and that “cancel culture” as these thinkers would like to portray it does not actually exist in the way they think it does (that several of the signees have espoused transphobic beliefs made the content of the letter even more suspect). If the signees’ ability to speak freely were in any real peril, for instance, how would so many of them occupy the most influential seats in American media and academics?

Debates around free speech have existed in the public sphere for centuries, but as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp explained, “What’s happening now seems novel because we are currently seeing a wave of social justice activism that seeks to redefine how we understand appropriate debate over these topics, sometimes even pushing to consign to the margins views that may have seemed tolerable in the past.”

As dreadful as it often makes the internet feel, social media was the reason The Letter existed in the first place. Without a platform like Twitter, millions of people’s experiences never would have been shared and considered, particularly those of BIPOC.

“While most Americans do not have Twitter accounts, journalists and politicians often do, and they have turned heavily in the past decade to the activists, scholars and people of color on Twitter to inform their coverage and policies,” wrote University of Pennsylvania communications professor Sarah Jackson in a defense of Twitter in the New York Times. “When they haven’t done so, these communities have responded resoundingly online. And America has listened.”

This is social media at its very best: democratizing the discourse so that the loudest and most historically prominent voices must also answer directly to the public. It’s something we forget about when we describe Twitter as a “hell site,” even when so much of it is devoted to inane debates over himbos.

Brandy Jensen, a writer and editor living in New Orleans who could be described as having been “Extremely Online” since 2015, is often one of the first people to make a joke about an especially bad tweet. This year, though, the stakes felt higher. “It felt like everybody was probably too excited to jump on any and all bad posts because we’re all stuck at home and wanting to yell about stuff,” she says.

The bodega tweet, she adds, was the perfect example of a not-especially-good but not-especially-bad tweet whose vicious response felt unwarranted and may not have happened in a different moment. “The pathway from ‘bad tweet’ to ‘death threat’ is getting shorter and more well-trod,” she says. “I do wish that people would treat bad posts like the gifts that they are rather than, like, snitching to employers. Have a little bit of perspective about what a tweet actually is.”

For instance, sometimes a particularly awful tweet can be the best part of our days. She references the infamous “gator” tweet sent after a 2-year-old boy was killed by an alligator near a Disney World hotel in 2016. The tweet declared that the person was “so finished with white men’s entitlement lately that I’m not really sad about a 2yo being eaten by a gator bc his daddy ignored signs,” a sentiment so outlandishly vile that it almost falls into the category of absurdist humor.

“I personally think that there’s something beautiful about the kind of endless well of human pathologies,” Jensen says. “You’ll think that you’ve seen every way that people can be and get a little bored with it all, and then you’ll come across something that introduces you to like an orientation that you have never even considered before. Like, I just had no idea that people could be stupid in this unique particular way.”

Isn’t this why we continue to log on, after all? To better understand the range of human behavior and learn about how to be better? There is something oddly wholesome about the most seemingly pointless online debates of the year, and why a scientist quipping that worms are overrated invited a comparison to social justice dynamics. It illustrates just how desperate we are to get things right, to be able to agree on the morality of our thoughts even if they sound completely ridiculous to everyone else.

Leiby says she can understand, theoretically, why people were eager to jump on the bodega tweet. Yet I think we should also understand why there seemed to be so many tweets like it this year. Leiby, for example, says she usually tests her “rough draft” ideas when she performs standup comedy. Naturally, she wasn’t able to this year.

“There’s something very different about saying [a joke] out loud to 40 people and being like, ‘All right, maybe I didn’t need to say that, so I just won’t say it again,’ versus tweeting it out to the internet where potentially millions of people can see it,” she says. “I think everybody’s feeling the need to express themselves, whatever that means.”

Most of us don’t do standup, but we do have friends, family, and coworkers who, until this year, we regularly bounced jokes or opinions among. These discussions have since moved online, where it is far easier to lose crucial context and the tones and facial expressions that in-person interaction provides, and where every point must be made in under 280 characters or a 60-second video clip. It’s fun to dunk on a bad tweet, but what is the point when the tweet in question was probably sent by someone who, like the rest of us, is lonely, scared, and incurably bored?

The only thing we need to know about the bodega tweet — and in all likelihood, most of the tweets we saw this year — is that, as Leiby says, “I don’t think I gave it more than five minutes of thought.”

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