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Every “chronically online” conversation is the same

At what point does discourse become punishment?

Illustration of the Twitter logo, screens, and frowny emojis. Dion Lee for Vox
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.

In October, a woman named Daisey Beaton made a huge mistake: She tweeted about her personal life. “my husband and i wake up every morning and bring our coffee out to our garden and sit and talk for hours,” she wrote. “every morning. it never gets old & we never run out of things to talk to. love him so much.”

If you felt a creeping sense of dread while reading about Daisey and her husband enjoying coffee in their garden, it’s possible you spend too much time online. That’s because despite its seeming innocuousness, Daisey’s post has all the markers of Twitter rage-bait, and by rage-bait I mean a person sharing an experience that may not be entirely universal.

Over the next day, Daisey received all kinds of angry replies: “Who has time to sit and talk for hours everyday? Must be nice,” one woman wrote. “What if we weren’t inherently wealthy and have to work and stuff?” replied another. There were plenty more: “I’m happy for you but it’s just smug, self satisfied bragging if it’s true. Your partner is most likely embarrassed by the tweet, or at least should be.” “I wake up at 6am, shower and go to work for a shift that is a minimum of 10 hours long. This is an unattainable goal for most people.” “You haven’t been married long have you.”

What happened next, though, was just as predictable: Other commenters had a field day replying to those replies (“I wake up every day fully engulfed in flames and being eaten alive by wolves. The fact that your tweet doesn’t represent my experience is a personal affront,” wrote NBC’s Ben Collins, sarcastically), and then a bunch of journalists wrote articles about how wild it was that Twitter users were piling on an innocent woman just for the small sin of humblebragging about her nice mornings. Daisey had briefly become Twitter’s main character, but it was the angry people who became the story.

It’s become something of a sport to unearth these sorts of replies, the ones where strangers make willfully decontextualized moral judgments on other people’s lives. We give these people and these kinds of conversations names: “chronically online” or “terminally online,” implying that too much exposure to too many people’s weird ideas makes us all sort of lose our minds and our sense of shared humanity. For years, people on TikTok and Twitter have delighted in recounting the most “chronically online” takes they’ve ever seen; the compilation below includes a disabled woman being accused of elitism for using a grocery delivery service and a 21-year-old Redditor being accused of “grooming” her 20-year-old boyfriend.

When I posed the question to Twitter — “What was the most chronically online discourse you saw this year?” — the replies were telling: There was “garden coffee lady.” There was someone likening playing fetch with a dog to abuse. There was, somehow, Anne Frank discourse again. There was a spreadsheet of famous authors next to the reasons they were “problematic” (sample: “John Green: ‘harmful depictions of manic episodes,’ William Shakespeare: ‘misogynistic principles enforced in books’”). There was the accusation that the teen actor in a Netflix series was “queerbaiting” because he … acted in the show (he was eventually forced to come out as bisexual in real life). When indie rocker Mitski tweeted that she’d prefer it if her fans didn’t film her the entire time she’s onstage, some fans claimed that her request was insensitive to people with memory-related disabilities.

What all of these arguments have in common is that very few people engage in them in real life. Sure, you might be privately annoyed at your friend who’s always talking about how great their life is when they drone on about their perfect mornings, and you might rightfully point out when an author has an unsavory past, but it’s unlikely that the subject coming up in conversation would lead to mass ridicule. But online, it’s almost a given. A frequently quoted tweet acts as a shorthand for this phenomenon: “Hi, most annoying person you’ve ever encountered here! I noticed this post you wrote in 3 seconds doesn’t line up with every experience I’ve ever had. This is extremely harmful to me, the main character of the universe.”

This is not to say that any accusation of sexism, homophobia, racism, ableism, or elitism is inherently whiny or baseless. In fact, it’s often in the reactions to these assertions where people extrapolate the most ungenerous reading and then dogpile on the person trying to call out injustice. Particularly in discussions of mental health and disability, it’s not always clear whether the person on the other side of the screen is in a safe state of mind. It’s easy to forget, in other words, that writing a long and furious Twitter thread about something seemingly inconsequential isn’t usually indicative of a logical headspace. The inherent contextlessness of platforms like Twitter also works in the opposite direction, though: It’s easy to use the language of social justice to justify anything we want, and by doing so, weakens real, meaningful activism.

Our collective thirst for gossip and controversy, particularly during and post-lockdown, has trained many to actively seek out content that aggravates us and immediately grasp onto its most extreme interpretation. Instead of “some people got mad at a lady for tweeting about her morning,” the joke becomes “having coffee with your husband is classist.” It’s a genre of content I like to call “Type of Guy” syndrome, where people on the internet create a mostly fictional straw man to represent a certain kind of person they dislike and then project it onto the one in front of them.

No news story exemplified this dynamic so unsettlingly as Johnny Depp’s defamation case against Amber Heard, in which the public, the tabloid press, and social media were loudly and firmly on Depp’s side, despite the nuances and facts of the case. Instead, Heard was pilloried as a liar and a “psychopath,” used as a scapegoat for the bubbling backlash against the Me Too movement. Ditto with “West Elm Caleb,” the random 25-year-old in New York City who was outed on TikTok in January for ghosting multiple women on dating apps and immediately became a national shorthand for a shitty person.

“The pathway from ‘bad tweet’ to ‘death threat’ is getting shorter and more well-trod,” the writer and prolific tweeter Brandy Jensen told me in 2020 when I wrote about the year in bad posts. We were already at the point in online culture where it felt like the water was getting uncomfortably hot, where a tweet about bodegas caused a days-long controversy and non-famous people were getting harassed for minor social misdemeanors. You can only scroll through so many angry replies to other people’s angry replies until you realize that nobody comes out looking good here.

If the water was hot two years ago, it’s boiling now. Last month, when a Twitter thread by a woman who sent her neighbors homemade chili went viral, the woman was accused of being a “white savior” and inconsiderate to autistic people (the woman who wrote the thread is autistic). It’s just one example of how high the stakes seem to be for interpersonal encounters that are objectively nobody’s business, and how so often our thirst for drama is really a thirst for punishment.

Because none of these encounters matter. It literally doesn’t matter that someone made chili for their neighbors because you were never meant to know about it in the first place. It’s not your business. To demand retribution against someone who says they enjoy coffee with their husband or makes surprise chili for strangers — or even someone who complains about these things! — reflects something far more disturbing than humblebrags or being a presumptuous neighbor. It’s that these reactions are so normalized online that they’re almost boring. Of course people are going to freak out about someone’s misguided problematic author spreadsheet even though it has zero bearing on the real world whatsoever, and of course people are going to accuse a beloved indie rocker of ableism for being annoyed by constant flash photography.

It doesn’t have to be this way! People in their regular lives don’t react this way to things. It’s only on platforms where controversy and drama are prioritized for driving engagement where we’re rewarded for despising each other. Perhaps, this holiday break, we could all use some time having a warm drink of choice with our loved ones in the proverbial garden, wherever that may be.

This column was first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.