Close-up photo of some delicious baked beans.For the last two weeks, I have avoided all posting to Twitter other than links, replies, and retweets. That leaves out the sort of offhand “microblogging” that has described the bulk of my Twitter use over the last dozen years. I don’t expect I’ll continue this reduced-use pattern indefinitely, but for the time being I feel comfortable with it.

I wish to minimize my own voice on Twitter, for now.

I didn’t plan on starting this change in behavior, but it resulted naturally from a harrowing few days that kicked off two weeks ago, involving two very different instances of mob violence. One you certainly know about; the other you’d have seen only if “extremely online”, at least to a certain degree. Both were fueled at least in part by Twitter, and both appalled me so much as to make me feel quite shy about continuing to use the platform unrestricted.

You already know that one is the deadly white-supremacist, anti-democratic mob attack on the U.S. Capitol—a still-developing story that, as I write this, has no name for the history books yet. I don’t need to describe it here (and it’d feel premature anyway). It’s the later-occurring of the events that scared me off Twitter, as well, so let’s come back to it.

The earlier event, unrelated to that awful attack and preceding it by about three days, was the internet-wide excoriation of the musician and podcaster John Roderick after he posted some bad tweets. I don’t know Mr. Roderick personally, but I do feel a very personal and emotional connection to his work. Watching a vast online mob assemble within hours to destroy the source of this work shocked and disturbed me deeply.

I will neither document nor defend Roderick’s tweets here. I will link to his apology for them, which includes a recognition for the ways that his words hurt people, however unintentionally. Two weeks ago I saw friends feel compelled to share painful stories about their childhoods, triggered into unwanted recollection by Roderick’s ill-told story. To that extent, I understand and sympathize with the response—especially in the initial hours of the web-wide reaction, before the outraged and arguably justified mockery of Roderick’s tweets had metastasized into a focused effort to isolate and ruin him personally.

I can also share my own truth that, through his podcasts, Roderick’s voice has for many years accompanied my daily chores and travels more days than not: an ongoing source of raconteurish humor, comfort, and wisdom. More profoundly, he wrote and recorded the song I associate with my middle brother’s death, which happened one year ago this month. It’s become the theme for Pete’s tragically sudden departure; to this day I cannot describe the song to someone without my emotions overwhelming me.

I’ve been on the internet a long time. I have absolutely cheered on, popcorn emoji in hand, entertaining dogpile-takedowns of hapless nobodies I’d never heard of the day before. This was the first time I had felt connected with the prey. The event has permanently changed my relationship with social media.

It feels unfair to say that it hurt me to see so many friends on Twitter and elsewhere spend the better part of a day gleefully banding together to tear apart a complete stranger to them, just because I value this person’s work. I feel like I should reserve “hurt” for those friends that Roderick’s words did wound. I can only relate how upsetting it felt to see people I know and respect, prompted by the irresistible energy of a rising rage-chorus, choose to make this particular activity one of their first creative endeavors of the new year.

Various people invited me to join in the festivities throughout the day, culminating in a friend posting a public “call-out” that tagged me and others as people who followed the reprehensible Roderick’s Twitter account. At that moment, I logged out of Twitter, and everything else consumed with the topic: Slack, IRC, and even more obscure chat systems. After Roderick posted his apology, I returned, but in the quieter mode I described earlier, and a mode I have remained in since.

The date of that apology letter, January 5, may induce a wince: it stands out as the day before the Capitol insurrection, yet another “before-time”, the last day of a lost world.

One aspect of the next two days stood out to me, still disturbed by the unrelated events of earlier that week. I watched glumly as much of my Twitter feed wasted no time at all accusing the Capitol and DC police forces of working with the insurrectionists. People held up rapidly traded evidence like snatches of recorded conversation, selfies taken with rioters, or the fact that the cops made few on-site arrests. All undeniable, all inviting infuriating comparison to the brutal police presence at last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, and all as entirely resistant to the most basic contextual consideration as anything else Twitter’s group-mind latches its talons into.

The truth, as now revealed in longer-form news stories that have begun to arrive in the days since the attack, presents a simpler story, one lacking the thrill of conspiracy. Surprised and vastly outnumbered by an armed mob with murder in their throats, the police had to tactically improvise in order to fulfill their mission of protecting the Capitol’s legislators and staff first and foremost, and then minimizing civilian casualties. That means de-escalation, and sometimes—these days—that means selfies.

It also means self-sacrifice: dozens of police were injured, one fatally. And it means lasting mental trauma and anguish suffered by the people who very literally stepped in to take the brunt of the unprecedented, unbelievable assault perpetrated on the seat of American government by thousands of American citizens bent on destroying democracy. At least one officer has taken his own life in the aftermath.

Social media isn’t interested in any of that, very much, at least not in the heat of the moment. It sees a wrong, and it demands a target. I’ve been complicit in this for years, but the John Roderick incident of two weeks ago helped open my eyes to how harmful it all is, fueling cynicism and misdirected rage, again and again, when there exist so many other things for us to more fruitfully direct our group anger towards.

And so, for now, I lower my voice. I cannot fix this aspect of such-as-it-is social media. I don’t know that it is fixable. So long as I feel compelled to continue participating in it, I will—but I will also minimize my exposed surface while doing so.

This article was also posted to the “social_media” section of Indieweb.xyz.

Image credit: “Mmm…baked beans” by jeffreyw is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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