The internet, it seems, moves ever more quickly these days. In one moment, director James Gunn is writing his third Guardians of the Galaxy film; the next, he’s fired for years-old offensive tweets. In another, a woman delights in observing a plane meet cute; the next, she’s criticized for invading those people’s privacy. It feels like no one is safe from scrutiny and condemnation on social media.
In this Slate Plus members-only podcast, Chau Tu talks to Slate staff writer Heather Schwedel about controversial viral moments on the internet, following social media trends, and the problem with Elon Musk’s online presence.
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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chau Tu: How would you describe your beat? What are you keeping your eye on most of the time?
Heather Schwedel: I write for Slate’s tech team, but specifically on that team, I write about tech and culture. So that means it’s a little loose, but I end up writing more about the fun and quirky sides of the internet, versus the companies and more business-y side, or the more specifically technological side. I end up writing a lot about social media and trends, and how normal people like us use the internet, how celebrities use the internet.
So I’m sort of on the lookout for anything that strikes me as fun and different or quirky about how we use the internet. I leave the dark side to other people on my team. I don’t like to write about the Nazis on the internet. It’s inevitable that I get into stuff like that sometimes, but I’m more interested in looking at the lighter side of things.
Do you find it hard to keep up with all the trends? Everything moves so fast online.
Yes. I find it impossible to keep up with trends. There’s so much going on that I’m not aware of, and I wish that I could spend more time on different communities like Tumblr or the chat rooms with video games where kids are hanging out. But there’s a certain amount of things that I just am going to miss, and I try to drop in when I can, but the internet is this infinite space that one person couldn’t possibly cover.
Kind of along those lines, I liked your story about Twitter and how you think that they should actually help everyone delete their old tweets. So tell me a little bit about your argument there. Why do you think this should happen, or why do you think Twitter should do this?
I’m not sure if I necessarily think that this needs to happen, but I was more posing it as a thought experiment, I guess. We’ve had these recent controversies where people have been getting in trouble because their old tweets have been dredged up. I think the most relevant example here is the director of the Guardians of the Galaxy series. His old tweets, some of which were offensive, were brought to the attention of the executives in charge of Marvel, and they removed him from the movie.
That’s still a developing story, because his cast has signed a letter in support of him. And these were old posts. Time has passed since then—he’s changed, his views have changed, and the internet has changed. And also, it was part of this right-wing smear campaign. It wasn’t like they came up in any sort of organic way. So in response to that, people are getting more cautious.
I think among journalists, journalists have always been cautious and on top of these things, and a lot of our peers have been deleting their tweets for a while now, but it’s something that other people are starting to do and think about, where it’s not like you used to say, “Oh, don’t let the trolls win.” But it now seems like, well, this might be the most viable defense against trolls taking your old posts out of context is just to delete them.
And I think we’ve seen things like Snapchat and Instagram Stories become popular, and people have taken a shine to this idea of content expiring and disappearing. So I was thinking along those lines, and thinking, people are already doing this, making their tweets expire on Twitter. Maybe this is something that Twitter should embrace, or at least experiment with, even though certain things seem locked in stone about Twitter culture and the way we use it, maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe tweets don’t need to exist forever.
I think there are drawbacks too. I don’t know if I love the idea of the public record such as it is being erased, but I think it’s something to consider, that maybe these posts shouldn’t exist in perpetuity, and we should think about them as a little more ephemeral. It’s like talking—something can be said and forgotten rather than being there forever, when all it’s really going to do is get you in trouble.
Right. Yeah, so maybe an alternative to the edit button that everybody wants.
Yes. Everyone’s been crying for the edit button, but maybe we don’t need an edit button. We just need the tweets to expire.
You’ve also analyzed some recent viral Twitter controversies, including the one where a bridesmaid was asking JetBlue for a refund to a wedding and also the story about a woman spying on these two people flirting on a plane. So what do you think you’ve learned from these viral moments? What do these viral moments represent, do you think?
Yeah, they’re both so interesting. Well, now, whenever someone goes viral, immediately, I guess the phrase is “my hackles are raised.” I’m skeptical. I’m like, is this real? What’s happening here? Is someone getting money from this? Is something bad going to happen? Is this going to result in whoever originally posted the thing getting doxed and their life ruined or harassed? It’s just an inevitability at some point, that when something goes viral, that there’s just always going to be something fishy, or some other element of it.
So with the love on a plane story, or so-called Plane Bae, I think that was superinteresting because I think that the narrative on that, when it was happening or when the tweets were first circulating, was, “Oh, this is so cute.” And then it became something entirely different, where it was like, “Oh, this is icky. We should let strangers have their privacy.” Then it just sort of kept going, and everyone was piling onto the woman who originally posted it, where I thought that became too powerful too. Like, OK, she just made a mistake and posted this thing without getting people’s permission, because maybe she wanted some attention. But also, we don’t have to condemn her as a horrible person because of that.
So a lot of it, these narratives, just seem so overdetermined at this point, where it’s hard to appreciate them in any sort of pure way. Going back to the bridesmaid thing, that was super interesting, just on a lot of levels. It’s wedding season, everyone wants to indulge in a little bridezilla-hating. But immediately, I saw that, and I was like, “Oh, that’s weird that she’s included JetBlue,” that the woman who posted the original email framed it as, “Hey JetBlue, I want a refund.” It’s weird that both of these involve planes and flights. Complaining about traveling and airplanes is this weird recurring leitmotif of the viral internet. Maybe she knew that. So there’s so many conspiracy theories that go into it.
I felt cautious even to write about it, because I was like, I don’t want to be one of the people piling on and leading this woman to get harassed or for something to get dredged up. I do think she’s locked that post or deleted that post since then, so maybe she wasn’t happy with the response to it. It goes to show how as someone who writes about the internet, I’m kind of implicated in all the economics and politics of what goes viral. So it’s something I’m always thinking about, but I don’t know if I can draw any conclusions beyond, be skeptical.
You actually coined a phrase for something that often happens after things go viral, which is “the Twitter invoice.” So can you explain that concept?
Sure. So the Twitter invoice is when you see either a viral tweet or thread, if you follow it to the bottom, there’s often a linked tweet after the fact where someone is commenting in this sometimes dazed way, like, “Wow, my tweet blew up. Shout out to my mom.” Or, “I’d like to thank the Academy.” No, they don’t say that, but often they’ll just use it as a chance to say something else while it’s their moment in the spotlight. And the cliché thing to say has become, “Wow, this blew up. Check out my SoundCloud,” and SoundCloud is where, if you’re an independent music artist, you would promote your music or your beats or something.
But I think these days on the internet, everyone has something to promote. So maybe it’s a charity, like, “Hey, donate to this while you’re here.” But often it’s like, “Hey, check out my book.” “Check out this web series I’ve worked on.” “Check out X thing.” And it’s just this funny bit of internet culture that’s developed where people see, “Oh, maybe this is my chance, if not for my 15 minutes of fame, my 140 characters of fame, or 280 characters, where I have to use this because I spend all this time on the internet, and maybe this is my moment where it’s going to pay off and I get something out of this.”
And I think a lot of people who are on Twitter are creatives or have some sort of side hustle and recognize that going viral is often not profitable, but they want to squeeze what attention and gain out of it they can, because everyone’s gotta hustle. It’s hard out there.
There’s also kind of a consensus, especially on Twitter, that the internet is bad, can be bad. But you have a series about what is good on the internet recently. So what’s been your favorite good thing on the internet?
Let’s see. Yeah, I do try to look for those moments of internet serendipity. There was one that I wrote about where it was this moment on Reddit where someone wandered into the wrong Reddit, subreddit, the forums by topic. And someone, they thought it was the subreddit about binary, like binary computer language. But actually it was a subreddit about gender binaries, and they made the mistake because when they were searching, maybe they were mislabeled. And they had asked this question about computer code binary.
So this Reddit user posted that he or she, they were having a binary translation problem, and thought it was a computer science subreddit. But then he was in the wrong place and apologized. But in the meantime, the people that populate the thread that post about gender binary, one of them happened to be a computer scientist. How did they put it? “You might say I put the binary in nonbinary.” So that person was able to answer the question, and it was all zeroes and ones, not a question I can actually reproduce, but you can look at my post.
And it was just one of these lovely moments of a stranger being nice to someone on the internet, even though we think that never happens, and just a coincidence that’s fun to think about. And it doesn’t have to be anything larger than that. Just a reminder that these sort of coincidences can happen when we’re sitting in front of our screens too.
And it’s not always bad.
No, it’s not.
So do you have any favorite follows? Who are you following for news or entertainment or even just these viral things that you want to follow, these viral stories?
Sure. Let’s see. Well, I’m always following a lot of celebrities. One of the ones I like a lot now is Jonathan Van Ness from Netflix’s new Queer Eye. I think he is just so delightful. He’s big on Instagram stories, and he’s always posting videos of him dancing, sometimes dancing with the rest of the Queer Eye cast, sometimes wearing stilettos, and he has these fierce legs. And I just think he is so fun and a ray of sunshine, so it’s always good to find a celebrity that you like who is just making this content just for you.
On the celebrity tip, I love Who Weekly. They’re a podcast, but they also have a Twitter feed that is quite good. On Twitter, I love this account called ’90s Women that just posts photos from the ’90s, and they’re not even all from the ’90s. Some are from the ’80s and ’70s. But it’s just a Twitter feed that will pop up with a delightful photo of Winona Ryder from time to time, and that’s always a nice distraction.
Who else? I love Of a Kind, which is a newsletter that comes every Monday. It’s the 10 things newsletter that recommends different things they like to you, and that’s how I discover new products or sometimes new accounts and articles I want to read. Yeah, I think aside from the usuals, those are some of my favorites.
So having covered the internet for a bit now, what do you think has surprised you the most in your reporting?
I found it surprising how often things repeat, and it feels like, “Guys, we’ve been through this before. We’ve already figured this out.” When there’s some controversy on Twitter or everyone’s talking about something. Everyone today is tweeting about the word partner and whether it’s OK for straight people to call their significant others their partners, or if that’s an appropriation of gay relationships. And I just feel like, “Haven’t we discussed that before? Haven’t we adjudicated that already? Can I point you to a Slate post that solves this debate?” But it just keeps going.
And I think that happens with a lot of things. Maybe with Elon Musk, he just keeps doing crazy things, and people—
Get outraged by it.
Yeah, get outraged, but I’m like, “Guys, I thought we decided he was bad when there was this whole controversy with unionization,” or, I don’t know, when he was going to save the kids who were locked in a Thai cave, and then he didn’t, so he called the guy who did a pedophile for reasons unknown. But we already knew he was bad. I’m surprised it keeps going.
And you’ve been covering the Elon Musk and Grimes relationship online as well.
Yes. “Grusk.” So Grusk has only been a thing for two months, but I just feel like Grusk has been a force in my life for forever.
What’s so fascinating about it?
They’re this couple that at first seems weird because they come from completely different worlds, but then also makes perfect sense in just a brain exploding sort of way. Like, oh yeah, Grimes probably does want to travel through space. So I guess she would date an Elon Musk type. And he has dated a lot of famous women, so I guess he would date Grimes. Or, I don’t know.
And her Twitter style is also starting to mimic his too, right?
Yeah, I wrote a little bit about that. I think fans have been a little disheartened to see that her politics, which used to be very indie, progressive, let’s not embrace capitalism. ... Now that she’s dating Elon Musk, some of that has gone out the window, and it’s created a strange dynamic of her defending her relationship on Twitter to fans. Which is something that Elon Musk does. He’s known to be a fast and loose tweeter. That’s where he called someone a pedophile, which was one of the only times he’s strongly been called out for the kind of stuff he does on Twitter.
I think they’re super interesting. I think I can’t see that relationship lasting, but it’s such a fascinating union of personalities.