I should probably start this article by admitting that I have, on several occasions, gotten into Twitter Fights. Sometimes it was just a snarky back-and-forth with a writer I disagreed with, other times it was a full-scale blowout of me awkwardly trying to defend myself from incensed barbs over an article I’d written. In all its many forms, I am intimately familiar with the Twitter Fight. And while it obviously has many drawbacks, there is clearly a sick kind of pleasure in being engaged in a Twitter argument. Your whole being is consumed by this petty back-and-forth on social media, breathlessly expressing itself in 140 characters and waiting for the response. It’s a deluge of feedback and criticism and yelling, and it’s inarguably much more interesting than scrolling through your feed and reading about what people are eating for breakfast. Even though it has always been a net negative for me, I see the illicit allure of a good sparring on Twitter.
And over the weekend, while I was walking around Central Park with my family and boyfriend, celebrating our one year anniversary in New York, I made the (rookie) mistake of opening Twitter and browsing my mentions. Of course, even in the best-case scenario, nothing good could have come from that action. At its most benign, checking my mentions would have just distracted me from the (wonderful) moment at hand, and gotten me caught up in the minutia of social media for no reason. But it happened that on that day, a small (but quite vocal) group of people had gotten angry at an article I’d written a week or so ago, disagreed with its central premise, and were… letting me know. My mentions were a flurry of angry comments, personal attacks, the cluster of people fav’ing and RTing one another’s barbs, and general messiness. Something like that hadn’t happened in some time, and I felt the initial flush in my cheeks and heaviness in my hands of the anger, confusion, and visceral need to defend myself that comes from being attacked in this way. And for a second, I considered taking one person out of the small crowd of voices and responding to them as best I could, but quickly decided against it and continued on with my silly Twitter life. I made a few tweets about other things, continued on with my day, and just as quickly as the anger had begun, it was gone.
We have all seen people — from colleagues to friends to celebrities — make the mistake of feeding into an argument on social media. Without exception, it never ends well for the concerned party, exacerbating and complicating the original issue until it is an indecipherable mess of five-tweet-long defenses, angry name-calling, and backpedaling from the backpedaling. Of course, this is not to say that no argument is worth having, or that anger is not often justified. These conversations can and should happen, but Twitter is quite possibly the worst medium to have them, particularly if the goal is to extract a thoughtful apology or convince someone of why they are wrong. Aside from the fact that your responses are limited to 140 characters (often not long enough for a joke, certainly not long enough for a meaningful exchange of complicated ideas), the pressure of being entirely public adds a layer of panic and posturing that turns a debate into a battle for superiority. The goal becomes not to convince or to understand, but to come out looking a certain way.
And the unfortunate truth is that, regardless of what you stand to lose by engaging in a fight with someone via social media, anyone can fight with you. Anonymous people, trolls, people who don’t use their real names, people without jobs they are interested in protecting. People can come out with aggression and vitriol and name-calling because it is not being tied to their character and professional reputation. If you are using your Twitter as a public representation of yourself and your work, the last thing you want to do is project to an employer or a colleague that you get mired in frequent internet squabbles, or call strangers nasty names. When you have a dozen people in your mentions with handles like Baby Princess Bitch, chances are the profile that is tied to your LinkedIn should not be engaging in that fight. You simply have too much to lose, and very little to gain.
That being said, I am a firm believer in online communication as a tool for personal growth. I don’t recognize the person I was on the internet four years ago, and have written articles that I am ashamed of today, and was rightfully called out for. I am grateful for the discourse that the internet can provide. This is why, for example, my email is available on my profile here for anyone to contact me, and my messages on Tumblr — even anonymously — are open for feedback. Many people have written to me with some variation of “This thing you said was fucked up and hurt my feelings, and this is why,” and I have engaged with them. It’s not always ended in universal contrition on my part, but it was at least a conversation I had the ability to reflect on and respond honestly to. But being screamed at on Twitter — particularly when there are so many other, more articulate avenues to contact me with — has never ended well for anyone.
I talked to a friend and writer recently who, despite being quite public and having her professional reputation attached to her Twitter, made the mistake of getting into a protracted argument with a big crowd recently. She said,
Remember that you are in control of whether or not you make the CHOICE to participate in any interaction. People saying things AT you does not make you obligated to engage them. When it comes to people beginning a conversation already upset with you, on Twitter, which is inherently a painfully limited means of communication, you need to decide if the possible benefit to responding will outweigh the negativity you will be willfully subjecting yourself to. Remind yourself that most people don’t want to broaden their understanding, nor do they want to be convinced. They simply want to be heard. […] Never take it personally – at best, these people understand a tiny fraction of who you are as a whole human being, yet they will make broad statements about your overall character (and they will likely be very unkind.) Remind yourself that they don’t possess the authority and knowledge to do that. If you’re going to define your feelings about yourself based on the opinions of others, at least let it be people who know you beyond 140 characters.
Twitter is easy to get caught up in. It’s fast, chaotic, and very, very public. But those are the three precise reasons why you should never engage in serious, thoughtful debate there, even when you feel that you need to defend yourself from libelous attacks, and even when you think you’re right. It’s simply not worth it, no matter how tempting the @ feature might be.