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Episodes: The Twitter jokes you don't tell OR Room is not The Room


Emily VanDerWerff

Nov 10 2015

5 min read



There's been a lot of discussion in recent years about proper behavior on Twitter, which once seemed to me the very best social network out there and increasingly seems to me like the online equivalent of the film Warriors, roamed by seemingly endless series of angry gangs, who sneer and shout and make things a terrible place to be.

And the thing about this is that you don't have to be part of, say, an active harassment campaign to make Twitter a worse place. Its public/private disparity is so horribly skewed toward the latter that it inevitably ends up making those who have even the most minor of public personas feel beset upon at all times.

Let me tell you what I mean.

I first noticed on Twitter that the interactions of the universe with me passed some sort of weird Rubicon once I had 500 followers or so. From there on, every new 500 followers ratcheted up these issues a little bit more and a little bit more. Now, I have well over 30,000 followers, and trying to talk about anything substantive becomes an almost hilariously pointless game. I mostly use it now for dumb jokes and goofing around with friends. There's nothing wrong with that, but I do miss the days when I could use it to crowdsource research or argue about television or anything of the sort.

To use a different example that has nothing to do with me, a PBS digital personality I follow said over the weekend how taken he was with the film Room. It was a succinct, lovely little tweet expressing his fondness for a film that he, presumably, hoped his followers would also enjoy. Just a few minutes later, he sent another tweet, with an air of exasperation about how, no, he didn't mean the Tommy Wiseau film The Room, famous for being one of the most enjoyably bad movies ever made. There was a sense of him wanting to clarify his remarks, sure, but also a sense of, "Jesus Christ. You know I don't mean that movie."

I didn't go digging into his replies, but I knew, instantly, what he had dealt with. He had mentioned Room, and then, simultaneously, at least five (and probably more, let's be honest) of his followers had seen the tweet, thought of the same dumb joke, and tweeted it to him at once, thinking themselves quite clever. This is comments section behavior, right? You read the article, you have a thought, and you post it in comments, so others can riff with you on the single most obvious joke you could have thought of. But on Twitter, the whole thing becomes a barrage of that same joke, over and over, because the experience is a bunch of lopsided conversations that all have the same, not-that-funny-anyway starting point.

The thing about your brain is that it's not as clever as it thinks it is. Tricking it into having amusing thoughts usually requires looking past the initial and finding the second or third or fourth idea. And that's tricky at first, so most people just grasp onto the original thing. And this is fine! Honestly! In conversation with friends, or in a comments section, that first joke is usually good enough to get a laugh and promote the social experience.

But on Twitter, that first joke becomes a kind of slowly building storm cloud, where everybody is trying to show off their own cleverness and get a laugh from a "friend" (the public person they follow), and it just starts to seem like an endless repetition of the same stupid things over and over.

And the thing is, I don't know how to fix this. I have made wholly innocuous tweets that get read as me saying something I hadn't intended in the slightest, and I've left myself open for obvious jokes, then watched as dozens, if not hundreds, of people respond with that same joke over and over. And it just keeps scaling upward. My bosses, who have hundreds of thousands of followers, will occasionally retweet something I say, and I get invited into a parallel universe, where we're just shouting, all of the time, about completely random things that have nothing to do with anything I've written.

Yet one of the things that makes Twitter great is the way that you can talk to anybody. I think taking away that aspect would irreparably kill the service. But maybe there's a way all of us can police ourselves better, can ask ourselves if the big, obvious joke that's come to mind is really something the world would be worse off without our sharing, or if we can chuckle politely to ourselves while imagining Tommy Wiseau getting in Brie Larson's face to tell her that she's tearing him apart, Lisa. Some thoughts you have -- hell, lots of thoughts I have -- don't necessarily need to be broadcast. The internet makes it seductive to forget that, but we all have to do a better job of remembering that's the case.

(And, while we're at it, not sign on for Twitter harassment campaigns, because those are among the worst possible things you can take part in. So don't do that. Thanks.)


Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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