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The Problem Of The Bad Tweet

You can't write the tweet that makes it less confusing to be alive

Twitter sucks these days. OK, you could argue it always sucked, but now–thanks to Elon Musk and all the horrors he’s encouraged–it sucks in a distinctive, new way that feels like there’s no coming back from. But the problem isn’t Twitter. The problem is that life is complicated, and confusing, and there is nothing anyone can tweet about it that will make it make sense.

Which terrible tweet is this blog talking around? You decide! Think of a recent tweet that really pissed you off. Not one of the obviously bad ones–someone spewing bigotry or hatred, or outright lies–but instead one of the ones that makes you shove your phone in someone’s face and shout in gleeful disgust, “Look at this!” Think of the brand of tweet that gets someone labelled “the main character” of the day, the kind that inspires a round of Discourse that leaves us all feeling worse than we did before, but also better, because at least we aren’t the person who sent the tweet.

What makes the Bad Tweet bad is that it’s often a grand pronouncement on some feature of being alive, such as experiencing art, or making or spending money, or dating, or interacting with others, or enjoying something. It tries to sum up how everyone should relate to something or someone or how everyone should act in a specific circumstance, some proclamation of moral certainty that often ends up with the poster declaring something absurdly simplistic or untenable. It tries to define the exact contours of privilege and oppression, or determine precisely how much attention should be paid to something and the correct steps the reader should take to demonstrate they’re paying the right amount of attention. It tries to show that the poster has located the line between being A Good Person and A Bad Person and they can show you where the line is too, in 280 characters or, even worse, a thread.

The happily horrified audience can tell themselves the Bad Tweet shows what’s wrong with [insert identity group], or what’s wrong with Twitter, or being online generally. But I think Bad Tweets are just clumsy manifestations of meaning-making, the human project of trying to make life make sense. Meaning-making is something people usually do with their friends or families, or with their activist affinity groups, or in prayer with whatever deity they believe in. It’s the work of psychology and religion and literature and superstition and the entire corpus of sports movies and asking your parents why your cat died when you’re a kid. And it’s messy and contradictory and more often than not doomed, because it’s a shifting, life-long process with no definitively correct answer that then lets you set “What it means to be alive” on a shelf like a trophy.

Twitter is a terrible setting for meaning-making. The context isn’t “Bible study” or “therapist’s office,” but the entire town square of 350 million people and who knows how many bots, with all of their own meaning-making projects clashing against yours, all of them eager to rip yours down because declaring “That doesn’t apply to me” or “What about this” is a meaning-making project too. Twitter isn’t a good place for nuance, vulnerability or uncertainty, all qualities that go into trying to figure out what the fuck we’ve gotten ourselves into by being born. 

Maybe the Bad Tweet pisses us all off so much because it reminds us that none of us has a better idea of what being alive is and how to do it. None of us knows why we’re here, how to stop happiness from being temporary, why bad things happen, how to behave to keep them from happening again. Seeing other people fail at meaning-making reminds us that we’re failing at it too, and then we deflect that howling terror by tearing them down or spinning up a meaning-making project of our own in the Discourse. 

We can’t escape this effort, not just because we’re terminally online but because that’s what being human is. But no one can write the tweet that will make being alive less terrifying. So we don’t have to cram our inherently inadequate conclusion of the moment into a little box, where everyone will immediately recognize it as inadequate because it can’t be otherwise. We just have to do the work, because the work is the answer, not whatever we post in Twitter’s too-sharable boxes to get ratioed. If the entire course of human history hasn’t found the answer of why and how to be alive, we are certainly not going to find it on Elon Musk’s Twitter.

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