Earlier today, comedian and Twitter Jedi Patton Oswalt took to his feed to apologize for a series of offensive Tweets he never tweeted. Here’s a taste:
It was a brilliant bit of trolling designed to prove when it comes to outrage, the Internet tweets first and asks questions later. And it totally worked. While people hip to Oswalt’s game enjoyed the show — he’s done this sort of thing before — others were not so amused.
But that was kind of the point. Sure, some of Oswalt’s critics today had their hearts in the right place. Rape jokes aren’t funny (though that’s a whole other debate). Some well-meaning, overly earnest people got caught in the crossfire. That’s unfortunate, but to be fair, they fell for it.
What Oswalt was trying — successfully, in my opinion — to prove was how easily people on social media are provoked to outrage. All it it takes is the whiff of controversy, and the court of digital opinion is ready to issue its 140-character condemnation— all GIFs and fury, signifying nothing. It’s a shallow response that reflects a shallow thought process.
Look not further than regular web outrage generator Salon, which has on occasion, put Oswalt in its crosshairs. Like today’s knee-jerkers, that didn’t work out so well for them either. But when news moves as fast as it does on social media, journalistic standards and context are luxuries. While some sites might opt for a more measured response, Salon has always been quick to condemn. After all, if you don’t report it, you won’t get the clicks. And clicks are, sadly, more important than news (just ask CNN).
Anyone with an understanding of Oswalt style of comedy and his politics understands what he’s up to. But that’s not how it works in the Twitterverse. The average Twitter user doesn’t have fucking clue about Patton Oswalt — or about the world in general. And why actually take the time to understand a situation when you can just respond with a bunch of derpy tweets?
But it’s not just Twitter’s fault; it’s just given stupid people a convenient outlet in which to be stupid. Look at cable news. Entire channels operate 24/7 on the same principle of giving people — some smart, most not — a platform from which to say whatever the fuck they want regardless of being right or wrong. Fox News is so good at it, they’re the #4 cable network in the US. Number. Fucking. Four. And all they do at this point is just scream “BENGHAZI!” into a camera all day long.
So while Twitter may be a popular hangout for the humorless and idiotic, it’s hardly their only home. But the sharks still seem to be circling Twitter.
According to some critics (and Wall Street) Twitter is on its way out. Last week, a story in The Atlantic eulogized the service, declaring that its best days were behind it. It’s one of those click-bait pieces whose most interesting revelation is in the headline. A taste:
Twitter used to be a sort of surrogate newsroom/barroom where you could organize around ideas with people whose opinions you wanted to assess. Maybe you wouldn’t agree with everybody, but that was part of the fun. But at some point Twitter narratives started to look the same. The crowd became predictable, and not in a good way. Too much of Twitter was cruel and petty and fake. Everything we know from experience about social publishing platforms—about any publishing platforms—is that they change. And it can be hard to track the interplay between design changes and behavioral ones. In other words, did Twitter change Twitter, or did we?
Perhaps, one problem is we are investing too much power in these platforms, and expect too much in return. Reading that quote, I’m reminded of something I came across on Dan Harmon’s Twitter feed today:
Harmon’s comment from the upper right of the image:
Margaret wished she could better control the lives of her virtual people. She wished the free app would stop using Facebook to make her grandchildren cry. She wished she could give it “minus ten stars.” The one wish Margaret never made, of course, was the one she could have granted herself: the wish for life. Instead, she grew increasingly artificial, her moods and health reliant on updates, updates which only betrayed her by making her fake people more and more real. Finally, a real reaper brought an end to Margaret’s virtual world, and her very real Sims charged proudly from her ashen, pixelated grasp.
At some point we have to separate ourselves from our screens. We choose to become invested in our digital worlds then turn on them with a misplaced sense of entitlement when we are confronted with something unpleasant or something that we don’t full understand — or want to understand.
Slate’s Will Oremus does a god job of taking apart The Atlantic story. And it basically boils down to this: Twitter’s stock isn’t performing like Facebook’s because it’s not the same service. You can’t measure Twitter by active users because people are using it differently. There is not the one-to-one interaction that comprises much of the Facebook experience. If anything, Oremus writes, Twitter has more in common with YouTube, making a distinction between social media platforms and media platforms.
Media platforms, by contrast, connect publishers with their public. Those connections tend not to be reciprocal. One Twitter user may be followed by millions of strangers whom she feels no obligation to follow back, any more than an evening news anchor feels the need to check in with each of her viewers every night at 6. As a media platform, Twitter’s chief function is to help people keep up with what’s going on in the world, and what influential people are thinking and doing at any given time. In that regard, it’s closer to a news service than a social network.
If that’s the metric, then Twitter is doing just fine. Wall Street just needs to understand it for what it is, and Twitter needs to figure out how to monetize it in a way that suits the platform.
But if we all are using Twitter the wrong way, thank god for people like Patton Oswalt who make wrong feel so right.