Why the Media Needs to Stop Cherry-Picking Twitter

Slate's Culture Blog
April 6 2012 5:54 PM

Stop Cherry-Picking Stupid People’s Tweets

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The Huffington Post recently published a slide show of tweets ostensibly revealing people's ignorance of the historical existence of the Titanic.

First we heard about the musical philistines who were unfamiliar with Arcade Fire and Bon Iver. Then came the people who had never heard of former Beatle Paul McCartney when he performed at the Grammys (“WHO IS THIS WHITE MAN”), followed shortly by those who were ignorant of Oscar host Billy Crystal’s claim to fame (“Who is this Billy Crystal guy and why does his face look like a sponge?”). Now, upon the 3D rerelease of Titanic, the Huffington Post has catalogued a list of tweets from people who ostensibly aren’t aware that the Titanic’s sinking was a real historical event (“Wait, so titanic was a real ship?”).

Curating examples of people saying stupid or thoughtless things on Twitter about specific historical and pop-cultural events has become a mini Internet genre—and it needs to stop. I’m glad that bloggers seem to have stopped sneering at people who haven’t heard of certain indie bands; Bon Iver and Arcade Fire are both emblematic of a very specific and mostly white aesthetic, and not having heard of them is a marker of one’s demographic, not one’s intelligence. But even when we’re talking about ignorance of major historical events—the sinking of the Titanic, the cultural influence of the Beatles—haughty scorn isn’t a good look on anyone, and though these collections are often presented without comment (as on Buzzfeed and the Bon Iver Tumblr), their main purpose is to make readers feel smugly superior to the poor schmucks who didn’t bother to pay attention in history class.

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Why shouldn’t we lord our superior knowledge over said poor schmucks? For starters, many of these uninformed people are kids. Though most Twitter profiles don’t list the user’s age, most of the individuals whose tweets were culled by Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, and the other Tumblrs show telltale signs of adolescence: young-looking pictures as their avatars, unconventional spelling and grammar, no capitalization, limited spheres of interest, constant tweeting, oversharing. Good judgment is not strongly correlated with youth, and all of us did or said stupid things when we were teenagers. Most of us, however, weren’t held up in the national media as an example of the intellectual bankruptcy of our generation. And I’m guessing that being mocked by the literati will not dispose any of these kids to better educate themselves—more likely, it’ll make them feel resentful and distrustful of the media.

What’s more: context matters. In the service of simplicity, bloggers mischaracterize tweets—for instance, most of those people asking if Titanic was real on Twitter actually just wanted to know whether the love story at the center of the film was based on a true story, not whether the ship actually existed. Some of the tweeters held up as examples of idiocy may have been kidding or trolling for attention—sarcasm can be difficult to discern online, especially in 140-character messages shorn of all other relevant information. Everyone knows that paying attention to trolls only encourages them, and snarky bloggers failing to detect the irony of others is, well, pretty ironic.

It’s impossible to discuss this new genre of Twitter-trawling without mentioning Hunger Games Tweets, the viral Tumblr consisting of screenshots of tweets expressing dismay that some of the characters in The Hunger Games were played by black actors in the film adaptation of the book. This Tumblr was different; many of the tweets contained therein used undeniably racist epithets. The Tumblr set off a spate of concern in the press, most eloquently expressed and analyzed by Anna Holmes for the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog. But though Hunger Game Tweets had a different motivation—racism is a fundamentally different beast from more innocuous forms of ignorance—its effect was the same as the Tumblrs and Buzzfeed posts that called out pop-music illiteracy. Many of the kids (and yes, we are still talking about kids) were excoriated by lots of strangers on Twitter after being featured on Hunger Game Tweets; many of them deleted their accounts afterwards. I have no sympathy for racists, but some of the tweets were oblivious about race rather than deliberately racist. It’s not hard to imagine a kid inadvertently saying something offensive and then realizing the folly of their ways a few years later. But it is hard to imagine their seeing the light if the response to inadvertent offensiveness is a torrent of outraged two-line messages from strangers on the Internet.

There have always been stupid and bigoted people, and there always will be stupid and bigoted people. Holding them up as an example so the liberal, educated world can sneer at and harass them is not a form of education. Tumblrs and blog posts that encourage mockery of dumb kids do nothing but deepen largely class-based cultural divides—and potentially alienate young people from the liberal media. The short-lived sense of superiority they give some readers is frequently mistaken—and rarely, if ever, worth it.

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

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