Twitter’s Biggest Problem Is That It Is Awesome
Last week, Newt Gingrich provided America—nay, the world—with what might be the greatest tweet of all time.
Gingrich was addressing a tattoo once sported by Democratic Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman that read “I will make you hurt.” (Fetterman has since had it covered.)
The former speaker posited that it may be a tie to the “crips gang.” Alternately, Gingrich guessed, it could be “a reference to the nine inch nails heroin song ‘Hurt.’”
Is Pennsylvania Democrat Fetterman’s tattoo “I will make you hurt” based on his ties to the crips gang as reported by the Free Beacon or a reference to the nine inch nails heroin song “Hurt”. Fetterman won’t answer questions.
— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) September 26, 2022
Imagine, if you will, the notoriously acultural Newt Gingrich spending 1994—the year of both his “Contract With America” and Nine Inch Nails’ groundbreaking album The Downward Spiral—in his Capitol office tackling the big music questions of the day:
Best Smashing Pumpkins album: Gish or Siamese Dream? Do members of Weezer cut their own hair? Don’t “mind on my money” and “money on my mind” sort of mean the same thing? What does Pauly Shore smell like?
The only “Republicans discover popular music” episode that ranks higher on the ridiculousness scale is when conservatives pretended that they loved Kanye West’s music once he started wearing a MAGA hat.
Newt’s delightful morsel of ridiculousness could only have been delivered in the age of social media. In previous years, his thoughts on industrial metal music would have remained unspoken. Now, thanks to Twitter, we are showered with his every thought on a regular basis.
And this is why Twitter is so dangerous: It is too awesome.
Sure, you’ve read all the pieces about how social media (generally) and Twitter (specifically) are ruining society. All true.
Twitter, for instance, encourages mobs to swarm people accused of betraying decency, hoping to brand them so that they can never function in an imagined version of “civil society” again. It turns people into insufferable know-it-alls who yearn to show the world how enlightened they are. It gives users a distorted vision of the world, making people feel alienated and alone even as they meet more people online.
But despite all these obvious downsides, we keep coming back. Why?
Because Twitter is hilarious.
Before social media, you had to seek out laughs on your own. You could read a funny book or magazine, or go see a movie. You could call a friend or take them to dinner and guffaw all night. You could try to spend more time with the one person at work who made you chuckle.
But now being entertained by humor is a far more passive endeavor. Just sit by your computer all day and a steady stream of jokes, memes, and videos are delivered right to your retinas while you do nothing. By the time the jokes reach you, they have most likely been shared by dozens of other people you like and trust, so they have already passed the test for comedic effect.
Certainly, sometimes the comedy is unintentional, as it was with Gingrich’s attempt to supplant Steve Buscemi in the “how do you do, fellow kids” meme.
But in general social media has turned everyone in America into a standup comedian. And some “regular” folks—people who don’t make people laugh for a living, or have a staff of underlings tweeting on their behalf—produce content better than the professionals.
Take, for example, writer Paige Kellerman’s thoughts on Target surveillance cameras. Or Christina Trexler’s opinions on paper straws. Or Kristen Stockdal’s discovery of an amusing Kim Kardashian/Kanye West headline.
Or @lanekisonak perfectly summing up an incident in which a spokesman for Senate candidate-slash-vegetable plate enthusiast Dr. Mehmet Oz mocked Fetterman’s health problems by observing “The crudité is the point.”
Some of these lay people turn into stars. Nobody really knows what David Burge (handle: @iowahawk) does for a living, but his steady stream of riotous tweets have garnered him nearly a quarter-million followers and landed his observations in a column by George F. Will.
How awesome is that?
The “experts” dislike Twitter because of the addictive nature of the dopamine hits triggered by getting strangers to agree with you online. But the rush you get from seeing something funny in your feed is every bit as addictive and those chemical rushes often can’t be found in “real” life. Mowing your lawn or sitting in a meeting now feels like wasted time if you’re away from the chuckle machine for too long.
Granted: The rush to be the funniest person on Twitter has a body count, because while a good joke can get you retweeted, a bad joke can, in certain circumstances, get you fired.
And the avalanche of jokes on Twitter devalues more traditional comedy. Take SNL’s “Weekend Update.” It used to be that “Weekend Update” was funny because it only had to compete with the jokes told by Gordon, the guy with bad breath in accounting. Now, it has to go toe-to-toe with a week’s worth of jokes that have been told, retold, and refined by 50 million or so amateur writers on Twitter.
The hive mind is almost always funnier, and faster, than the writers’ room. And Twitter is the show that’s always on.
Sure, Twitter is addictive for other, less nice, reasons. We get to be people we know we really aren’t. We cosplay as psychologists and political experts and epidemiologists and music snobs and athletes—and mostly get away with it. We make friends that we know only through social media, and then treat them as if we have been best buddies since first grade. And these payoffs are enough to offset the bottomless chasm of insufferability on the platform.
But mostly, it’s the sheer entertainment value that keeps us hooked. The snarky observations. The off-the-wall jokes. The politically irreverent jibes.
If you wanted to be a killjoy, you’d note that the time spent marinating in these posts distorts our view of the world, separating us into people who “get” the joke and our natural opponents who do not. And, yes, Twitter bleeds America of valuable man-hours as entertainment-starved people set fire to their productive time.
Also, as study after study has shown, increased internet use makes us all feel lonelier and more isolated even while we think of ourselves as being more “connected.” In a recent Atlantic article, Arthur C. Brooks cites a 1998 study that concludes greater use of the Internet was “associated with declines in participants’ communication with family members in the household” and “declines in the size of their social circle.”
“More ominously,” Brooks writes, “it led to ‘increases in [the participants’] depression and loneliness.’”
That’s the real problem, isn’t it? The humor on Twitter ultimately puts a sweet coating on all the poison found online. Users get themselves addicted for all the good reasons, but end up succumbing to the bad ones. Twitter is the razor blade in the Three Musketeers candy bar your mother warned you about every Halloween.
When the standup comedy scene exploded in the 1980s, someone in the San Francisco Examiner wryly noted that by the year 1995, “two out of three people will be comedians.” One critic quoted in that piece quipped that, “In the future, everyone will be funny for 15 minutes.”
Which turned out to be true.
Except that in the end, the joke is on us.