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Let’s Stop Pretending Twitter Etiquette Exists

This morning, Salon ran a piece from Edward Champion about the dreaded subtweet. If you don’t know what the subtweet is — it’s quite possible you don’t, and that’s something those of us in the very insular and incestuous New York media world forget very often — it’s when you basically make fun of someone on Twitter but don’t include their name or Twitter handle. Presumably, they won’t see it. (Of course, people often do, weirdly enough.)

Apparently this is a new trend, the concept of talking trash about someone behind his or her back. The only difference between doing it on Twitter and doing it in real life (which we have all done, by the way) is that everything you say online is stored for the record. I suppose that’s the genius behind subtweeting: it’s subliminal and mysterious (barf), but, like pretty much everything else about Twitter, stupid and pointless. It’s all white noise, moving at such an insanely fast speed that it seems ridiculous to have to write this sentence to remind everyone that it literally does not matter.

But we writers, of course, think it does. Because we are putting our very special thoughts out for the world to see! And fave. And retweet. It’s all full of breaking news (which is generally rash and worrisome) or self-promotion or one-line jokes, because suddenly everyone is a damn comedian. Wait, I take all of that back: Twitter is about self-promotion, almost exclusively; the whole thing has a big Look At Me sense about it, which is why it’s hard to take any of it seriously.

That’s why, of course, there are so many opinions about how to use it! Champion isn’t the first person to rail against the subtweet; BuzzFeed’s Myles Tanzer declared it to be “over” earlier this month. This year, on a piece about what could basically be called sub-favoriting, The Wall Street Journal profiled Contemporary Internet Luminary Choire Sicha, who told the paper that he uses the favoriting feature “to back one side in a fight, when two people are going at it and I don’t want to get involved… When someone is totally awful, hitting ‘favorite’ is the most perverse thing you can do.” (Champion, in his Salon piece, calls Sicha’s comment out as bullshit in a particularly heavy-handed manner: “The most perverse thing you can do on Twitter is to give someone the benefit of the doubt,” he writes. “The most dangerous thing you can do is to put forth an independent viewpoint and take the risk of losing followers to expose a greater truth.” Uh, alright. Tweeting as bravery!)

Twitter is one of the rare corners of the Internet wherein anonymity has diminished, which is for good and for ill. A tactic I tend to despise among a lot of the people I follow on Twitter is to at-reply famous people and call them, essentially, stupid. I saw this happen several times this morning, when people were faux-congratulating Kanye West and Kim Kardashian on their engagement. On Sunday, I watched as a lot of mostly white men angrily tweeted about Delia Ephron’s op-ed criticizing the aesthetics of the CitiBikes in New York, while including her Twitter handle to ensure that she would see how entitled they think she is.

Twitter gives us this really skewed perception of how much people pay attention to us — not only the people who follow us, but the people we mention and desperately bait into acknowledging our presence. In the case of Ephron, I also saw plenty of people call her out for her “shameless” retweets from those who raved about her essay while not retweeting her critics. I just kept thinking, “Why the hell would someone promote the people calling her a monster for a fairly innocuous piece in The New York Times that we’ll all forget about by Wednesday?” (As someone who has learned not to scroll down on this very website to read the ire from strangers who think I’m a monster of a human for daring to have an opinion that differs from theirs, it amazes me when people take time out on Twitter to openly tell me what kind of shit I am. I do not engage, but if I could, I would commend them for their bravery, I guess.)

Look, we all hate things about Twitter behavior. Katy Perry, a beacon of maturity and responsibility, advises against “drinking and tweeting.” Our own Jason Bailey complained a few weeks ago about the way people live-tweet TV shows. I’ve even written about the cliquey nature of the Internet and how insufferable it is to watch people have what amounts to a private GChat openly online, as if to say to those in the middle of the Venn diagram of their followers, “Look at us! Being friends and being so funny, together! Jealous?” And I do love watching a fight between acquaintances go down online, because if only the conversation were to take place in real life, where tone and subtext are much easier to decipher through emotion and face-to-face interaction, none of us would act like terrible morons toward each other. But sitting behind a computer screen, feverishly typing our opinions, allows us to be jerks to whoever we want, even publicly. The 140-character limit, which severely limits everything about our own characters, does nothing but exaggerate how awful we all can be if given the freedom to do so.

So basically, don’t tell anyone how they are doing Twitter wrong. Or do. Don’t listen to me, for crying out loud, because who cares? It’s all so stupid and pointless while at the same time being so real and meaningful. Do what you want, I suppose, and I’ll do the same. But in this wild frontier of the Internet, don’t expect anyone to be nice to you all the time or, God forbid, deem anything you have to declare from the mountaintops of your Twitter feed worthy of attention for longer than it takes to hit the refresh button.

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