The Magazine

The Twidiocracy

The decline of Western civilization, 140 characters at a time

May 6, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 32 • By MATT LABASH
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Though I’ve just catalogued much to hate about Twitter, there’s plenty more to hate about Twitter. I hate that Twitter makes the personal public. That conversations between two intimates that formerly transpired in person or by email become conversations between two intimates for the benefit of their followers. I’ve actually been to lunch with people who have tweeted throughout, unbeknownst to me. (The fact that they only looked up from their iPhone twice in two hours might’ve been a tipoff. Though that’s pretty much par for the course, even with untweeted lunches these days.)  

I hate that formerly respectable adults now think it’s okay to go at each other like spray-tanned girls on Jersey Shore, who start windmill-slapping each other after they’ve each had double-digit cherry vodkas and one calls the other “fat.” None of which gives onlookers pause. After all, it’s only a Twitter fight. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of Friday Night Lights, Buzz Bissinger, recently made headlines for penning a lengthy GQ article about his Gucci shopping addiction (75 pairs of boots! 41 pairs of leather pants!), which set him back over half a million dollars. But long before that, he’d humiliated himself on Twitter, machine-gunning all comers with one f-bomb tweet after another. Not only was Bissinger unabashed, he wrote a piece boasting about it for the New Republic (appropriately titled “Twidiot”). Buried deep in his GQ piece, however, was an admission more troubling than an addiction to overpriced clothing that makes him look like the interior of a 1982 Crown Victoria. Once considered to be a fine long-form writer, Bissinger now found himself losing focus: “I f—ed around more and more—nasty guillotine rants on Twitter going after everything and everyone, Googling my name six or seven times a day, craving crumbs of attention.” 

Being driven to distraction by the steady dopamine-drip of attention on Twitter and other social-media sites is hardly unique to megalomaniacal leather enthusiasts. A recent survey by Boost Mobile found 16-25-year-olds so addicted that 31 percent of respondents admitted to servicing their social accounts while “on the toilet.” And a Retrevo study found that 11 percent of those under age 25 allow themselves to be interrupted by “an electronic message during sex.”

A technology that incentivizes its status-conscious, attention-starved users to yearn for ever more followers and retweets, Twitter causes Twidiots to ask one fundamental question at all times: “How am I doing?” That’s not a question most people can resist asking, even in their offline lives, but on Twitter, where tweeters are publicly judged by masses of acquaintances and strangers alike, the effect tends to be intensified. Even the most independent spirit becomes a needy member of the bleating herd. It’s the nerd incessantly repeating what the more popular kids say. It’s the pretty girl, compulsively seeking compliments.

As a friend of mine says, “It’s addictive and insidious. I see it even with smart people who ought to know better but can’t help themselves. They give wildly disproportionate weight to the opinions they read on Twitter, mostly because they’re always reading Twitter. Which fills them with anxiety, distorts their perceptions, and makes it almost impossible for them to take the long view on anything. Every crisis is huge, ominous, and growing. Every attack requires an immediate response.” 

A yearlong Pew study reinforces this. It found that Twitter users tend to be considerably younger and more liberal than the general public. But whether tweets tended to skew liberal or conservative was almost immaterial. Twitter reaction to current events was often at odds with overall public opinion, and it was “the overall negativity that stands out.”

Another friend, who has seen her industry overrun by Twitter, puts it like this: “It’s the constant mirror in front of your face. The only problem is that it’s not just you and the mirror. You’re waiting for the mirror to tell you what it thinks. The more you check for a response, the more habituated you become to craving one. It’s pathetic, because at the end of the day, a Twitter user is asking, ‘Am I really here, and do you love me?’ And there will always be someone else who gets more approbation for their 140 characters to make you feel like you’re never quite good enough. The whole thing is like being in the worst years of one’s adolescence.” 

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