Twitter shows its rude side

Twitter shows its rude side
What accounts for the galloping lushness of bad manners on Twitter? A recent incident may shed some light.

When Bill Clinton appeared on Stephen Colbert's television show in early April, Colbert expressed surprise that he didn't have a Twitter feed. Clinton said he didn't tweet because he's "sort of insecure." So Colbert set up an account ((AT)PrezBillyJeff) and had the former president dictate his first tweet to him. Clinton added that he was worried he would attract no followers, saying, "There's nothing worse than a friendless tweeter, right?" (He needn't have worried: An hour after the episode was broadcast, he had 20,000 followers.)

My point, If a household name capable of instantly drawing a crowd is concerned about looking like a loser on Twitter, think of the burden felt by the average Joe. In a milieu rife with self-promotion and self-branding, the inevitable byproduct is insecurity. Insecurity is to bad manners as boat travel is to nausea.

I joined Twitter in February to give myself a daily deadline for writing jokes, but soon the demon of success started breathing fire in my ear. "I don't have enough followers," I soon started thinking. "I need to twitter-blitz or to set fire to a small dog." I felt as if I had shown up at the Oscars in a tux by Giorgio Armandi. The first piece of wisdom I gleaned was unanticipated. Namely, Twitter fact-checkers are an unforgiving bunch. In March, shortly after Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio reversed his position on gay marriage because he has a gay son, I wrote the tweet, "Senator Rob Portman doesn't have another son who's poor and 87 and in need of health care, does he?"

When Andy Richter, the actor and writer best known as Conan O'Brien's sidekick, retweeted the joke to his 452,000 or so followers, one response I received was a veritable tasting menu of bad Twitter manners, combining as it did fact-checking (one) with undermining (two) and blame (three). The response ran, "an 87 year old son? (AT)billmaher made that same joke, only funny. thanks for nothing (AT)andyrichter." Trifecta!

The most egregious expressions of insecurity on the site, of course, are nasty comments. If Twitter is an excellent shopping mall full of boutiques that offer specialized news and wit and opinion, it is also a crowded barroom that bristles with a certain kind of white male rage.

This rage, marked by a hostility toward anything poetic or naive, reaches its full expression in the comments directed at Jose Canseco's feed, a highly pleasing outpouring of slightly oddball, gnomic pronouncements. When Canseco, the baseball player, wrote, "I have blown up bigger engines than the diesel," one of his followers wrote, "Jose, I think you're an absolute moron." Canseco's tweet "north korea do the math" drew "I'm also very familiar with mental illness."

You don't have to wield a cudgel to exhibit insecurity, though; I, for one, turn all my anxiety inward. Every time someone retweets one of my jokes, it sets off a spate of fretting about reciprocity.

If the person is a total stranger whose feed I do not follow, then I will look at this feed and consider climbing aboard. I'll look at the ratio of how many tweets to how many followers that person has: If it exceeds 10 to 1, then I may suddenly feel shy. Because this person is unknown to me, I will feel no compunction to retweet a post of hers, though I may be tempted to "favorite" (the equivalent of Facebook's "like" button) one.

But what if the person who has retweeted me is someone I know? Suddenly the pressure mounts. I'll proceed to follow her, of course, if I don't already. Then I'll start feeling very guilty if I don't retweet one of her posts.

Occasionally the disquiet caused by scanning an acquaintance's home page for a reciprocal retweet can escalate. Richter said: "Sometimes I just cannot pull the trigger. Then I'll bump into that person in the real world and they'll compliment me for my tweet. That's like saying, 'I saw your jail video on the Web!"'

Further complicating these bouts of anxiety about reciprocity is that they tend to happen in clumps. Like other activities rooted in the nonessential (finally reading that back issue of The Economist, say, or trimming difficult-to-reach hairs on your person), Twitter is at its most compelling when you are trapped in an airport hotel in Tulsa, Okla. You'll write 10 tweets that night, two or three of which will catch fire, drawing traffic. This traffic will want managing. You'll wake up the next morning and discover you've got some thank-you letters to write.

Such a situation befell me recently when a joke about a family member ("Although it's entirely untrue, my mother likes to tell people that I'm a film critic for NPR because that gets the biggest reaction") was retweeted by two colleagues in journalism. A more political one ("America: we may not be able to provide affordable health care for all, but our podcast industry is untouchable") was retweeted by the writer Merrill Markoe and "favorited" by the comedian Rob Delaney.

I wondered how to acknowledge this praise. I summarily retweeted tweets from both of my colleagues' feeds. (I ruled out hitting the Reply button and writing "Thanks!" because publicly disseminated thank-you letters are, for their nonrecipients, the most boring reading on the planet.)

But Markoe, being a comedy influence of mine, and Delaney, having some 820,000 followers to my 1,100, needed much more. I will admit that my desire to pinpoint these two people from among the others who retweeted or "favorited" the same joke attests to a kind of snobbism pervasive on Twitter, and of which I'm party to: Because they're well-known, these two are names that I want to spray onto the faces of my followers like an alley cat with a jet of civet. So I composed what is the most obsequious tweet I've yet written: "Oh, if I forgot to tell you that Merrill Markoe retweeted me and Rob Delaney favorited me yesterday, it's because I am already dead." Mr. Lick, meet Mr. Spittle.

I grant you, my Twitter anxieties are to a large degree those of a newbie. I'm told that the more you tweet and the more followers you have, the less you stress over whether you've returned the favor (but the more trolls you're likely to encounter). In an ideal world, I would have enough followers that my retweeting of a nonfamous person's witticism would have the kind of impact that my celebrated colleagues' retweeting of my work has had on me.

"It's sort of noblesse oblige to alert people to the unfollowed," said Richter, who is admirable for often retweeting people far less famous than him. "Sure, it feels a little royal doing it, but there are people who deserve it."

John Moe, who hosts the public radio show "Wits," was one person who did it for me. I'd like to tell you how good this made me feel, but first I need to remove my shoulders from my earlobes. In the meantime, I will simply long for a more innocent time, a time when constant self-promotion was less complicated and anxiety-producing. As I posted recently: "I love Twitter. But Facebook will always be my Wasilla."

© 2013, The New York Times News Service


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