So here’s a dumb thing that happened.
A few weeks ago, I made a corny and obvious dad joke on Twitter, because that’s 99.9% of what I do on Twitter:
This is fine I guess but why isn't there an all-WHITE version of The Wiz?! https://t.co/7OaA79nGad
— Chuck Jordan (@SpectreCollie) November 13, 2015
At the time, that piece of lovingly crafted artisanal comedy got exactly the amount of attention it deserved, which was almost none. I’ve been making dad jokes since before I turned gray, so I’m intimately familiar with having friends and loved ones roll their eyes and go on about their business.
Last night, surprisingly, it got retweeted by somebody asking “are you kidding me right now?” I responded that yeah I was kidding, I’d thought it was obvious; I got a polite “sorry” that was appreciated but completely unnecessary; that was the end of that.
But then I saw another retweet, and then another, and another, all of them saying some variant of “is this guy for real smh” or “lmao” some such. No big deal. Then I noticed that one of them exclaimed “FOUND IT,” which seemed weird, like it was part of an ongoing conversation. What was going on?
As it turns out, this was going on: a piece of investigative journalism on Buzzfeed mocking all the clueless racist people on Twitter and Facebook complaining about The Wiz. (Which, in a completely fortuitous coincidence for Buzzfeed’s site traffic, is airing live on NBC tonight).
As I said on Twitter, I’m not sure what aspect of that post bugs me more: the attempt to stir up a controversy, or the assumption that a gay man in his 40s would have never heard of The Wizard of Oz, or that one who grew up in the 70s had never heard of The Wiz.
If I’m honest, though, what hurts the most is the last bit, where he says my dumb joke is one that was already done on Glee. Manufacturing outrage for page views is one thing, but using screengrabs of Kristin Chenoweth in order to call me derivative is just cruel.
I won’t be even more derivative by going into a long explanation of why I think the outrage-as-engagement content mills are awful, because it’s already been covered elsewhere. There’s an entire site brilliantly parodying it (Wow). And a writer named Parker Molloy wrote “5 Things the Media Does to Manufacture Outrage”, which explains it as clearly as anything I’ve ever seen. (And is written in Buzzfeed format, which I’m assuming was a clever stylistic choice even if it wasn’t).
Here’s the thing, though: the “writer” of that Buzzfeed post blurred out photos and names — which I guess is at least something positive, or there’d be even more nonsense coming my way — but it’s still super-easy to find stuff just by searching for the body of the message. Computers, and all that. So I searched for the other ones. I only found two others, but it was immediately obvious that they were both corny jokes, too. It’s not even painstaking research, either. 90% of the time you can tell who’s a troll, who’s a batshit extremist, and who’s just making goofy jokes within 15 seconds of reading a twitter feed. It took Buzzfeed longer to blur the profile photos than it would’ve taken to do a quick scan for context.
But nobody bothers to scan for context, so it’s been a day of getting notifications of people calling me an asshole or an idiot. To be clear: it’s just been a couple dozen retweets and one cartoonishly overwrought jerk trying to pick a fight, which barely even registers on the scale of internet harassment. I am white and male after all, so I didn’t have anybody calling me fat or mocking my religion or ethnicity. Still, for somebody who gets about four or five notifications a day, it’s been a drag.
And it’s the laziness of the whole thing that gets me. Sure, making a corny and obvious joke is lazy, but short, ephemeral bits of nonsense are what Twitter’s for. It’s the laziness of serving up “content” that’s just a twitter search for a bunch of seemingly inflammatory tweets interspersed with TV show GIFs and sarcastic comments. The laziness of acting as if that’s really getting a handle on the cultural zeitgeist and making some kind of statement about social justice. The laziness of retweeting something without even taking a few seconds to look for context. The laziness of immediately assuming that people are impossibly crass, selfish, and stupid, so of course you’re going to give them a 140-characters-or-less piece of your mind. Just the willful incuriousness of not wanting to find out more about the thing you’re angrily responding to.
Of course, I do it too. I’ve been trying to do a better job of vetting stuff before I send it along, instead of just sharing and retweeting everything I see that pisses me off. But I’m still frequently happy to dive headfirst into the gears of the outrage machine, shaking my tiny fist at whatever the Blogging Illuminati have decided is to be the Controversy of the Week.
And why not? Companies have spent millions and millions of dollars to make it so easy. Reading stuff is a chore, but it just takes a fraction of a second to hit the RT or Share button. These days, they even serve up a convenient menu of stuff to be angry about. “That mostly forgotten actor from the 80s said what?! This aggression will not stand!” Engagement. Content. People may just be saying vapid, mean-spirited, insight-free nonsense, but that’s okay as long as they’re saying something.
I’m starting to think I had a better handle on it years ago, before I “learned” why Internet Activism is Important. I used to think it was futile to pull out the pitchforks and torches every time someone said something inflammatory on the internet. But over time, I was reassured that it was bringing about real social change.
Instead, though, it’s just created an environment where people treat the most vapid statements as if they were profound declarations. I’m taking a stand against hate! While I’m sure that’s a blow to the pro-hate lobby, it’s not actually doing anything.
And you don’t have to be a statistician to understand that a bunch of randos spewing shit on Twitter isn’t a representative sample of anything. Even if that Buzzfeed “story” weren’t weighted with corny liberals making clumsy attempts at satire, and it were in fact a bunch of clueless racists spewing toxic nonsense on social media… really, so what? Do you really want to amplify that crap, to act like it’s something that intelligent people should waste their time responding to?
It’s not a case of ignoring something pernicious, just hoping it’ll go away. And it’s absolutely not a case of ignoring harassment and pretending it doesn’t exist. It is recognizing the difference between meaningful engagement, and just looking for something to get pissed off about. Which is worse than a waste of time, because it gives a voice to ideas and opinions that don’t deserve it. Keep doing it long enough, and you create an environment where even the most basic human respect — like, say, not harassing women or people of a different religion — gets treated as if it were a controversial topic on which reasonable adults can disagree.
It used to be that I’d see people committing themselves to “think positive” or “promote good” or “be the change you want to see in the world” and think that they were being impossibly naive and sheltered. You can’t just ignore injustice! You’ve got to root it out, and fight it! But that just puts you in the mindset of always looking for a fight. And I mean that literally — I confess I’ve absolutely posted stuff on Facebook with the express intent of looking for someone to disagree with me, so I could feel like I’d accomplished something with my righteous conviction. And I’ve spent a depressing amount of time in my life ranting about Mike Huckabee, somebody who has no chance of ever being President or in any kind of influential position, and who just says things to get attention and piss off people like me.
So gradually, I’ve been starting to see the appeal of this whole “positivity” business. If you really want to see an end to bigotry, misogyny, and general awfulness, you could yell at awful people until they stop being awful. Or you could pledge to be as un-awful as possible, and spread that around instead of the nastiness. The latter seems a lot more fun, and a lot less error-prone. Learn to recognize who’s actually influential, and who’s just trying to manipulate people into thinking they’re more influential than they really are.
Having been both the yeller and the yelled-at in Twitter flare-ups, I can tell you that it’s completely unproductive both ways. At the risk of tanking the entire social media economy, I think it makes a lot more sense to just disengage from the outrage machine and spend more time celebrating people doing great things and ignoring the assholes until we starve them of oxygen.
Except for that pharmaceutical CEO guy who jacked up the price of that AIDS drug. He is just the worst.