Twitter is the political pornography of our time: revealing but distorting, exciting but dulling. It’s bad for the soul and, as Donald Trump proves daily, bad for the country.
This is the column in which I formally forswear Twitter for good. I’ll keep my Twitter handle, and hopefully my followers, but an editorial assistant will manage the account from now on. I’ll intercede only to say nice things about the writing I admire, the people I like and the music I love.
Why now? Because, while reading a cover story in New York magazine, it occurred to me that Twitter is the political pornography of our time: revealing but distorting, exciting but dulling, debasing to its users, and, well, ejaculatory. It’s bad for the soul and, as Donald Trump proves daily, bad for the country.
The story, by Maureen O’Connor, makes use of a decade’s worth of big-data analytics from the website Pornhub, which attracts 75 million visitors a day. The result is what she calls “the Kinsey Report of Our Time” — an unvarnished and unfiltered portrait of the unchecked libido.
Since this is a family newspaper, readers will have to learn the more salacious details of O’Connor’s article by consulting it for themselves. But one important point stands out. “Pornography trains us to redirect sexual desire as mimetic desire,” she writes. “That is, the sociological theory — and the marketers’ dream — that humans learn to want what they see.”
Steve Jobs expressed a similar thought in 1998: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Technology doesn’t merely service needs. It also teaches wants. You never thought you’d need an iPhone, but you do. You didn’t know you were into kinky massage videos, but you are. We discover our innermost — and bottommost selves — only when someone else opens the basement door.
That is what Twitter has been for our politics. Short-form writing can be informative, aphoristic and funny. Twitter is terrific when tailored as a personalized wire service and can be a useful way to communicate with readers. And where would our literary culture be without @WtfRenaissance or @LosFelizDaycare?
But Twitter’s degrading uses tend to overwhelm its elevating one. If pornography is about the naked, grunting body, Twitter is about the naked, grunting brain. It’s whatever pops out. And what pops out is altogether too revealing.
Another insight from O’Connor’s article: “Porn has always been a place for indulging irrational, secret and socially unacceptable desires — which makes it a place where people feel free to let their racial prejudices and fantasies run wild, too.”
Twitter is no different. Bigotry flourishes on Twitter, since it offers the bigot the benefits of anonymity along with instantaneous, uncensored self-publication. It’s the place where their political minds can be as foul as they want to be — without the expense or reputational risk of showing their face at a Richard Spencer rally.
Twitter doesn’t merely amplify ugliness. It erases nuance, coarsens thought, turns into a game of “Telephone” in which original meaning becomes hopelessly garbled with every successive retweet. It also facilitates a form of self-righteous digital bullying and moblike behavior that can wreck people’s lives.
Ask Justine Sacco, a PR executive who in 2013 sent an ironic tweet to her 170 followers just as she was about to step on a flight to Cape Town. “Going to Africa,” she wrote. “Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
She emerged from the plane to discover that what she had intended as a mordant observation about white privilege hadn’t been read that way, and that in 11 short hours she had become the poster racist in a worldwide shaming campaign. She lost her job. Twitter, as the author Jon Ronson has noted, is the 21st century’s answer to the pillory.
That, too, is part of the pornography of Twitter: pleasurably bearing witness to the mockery or humiliation of others. Things we would never say in person, acts we would never perform, become safe to indulge thanks to the prophylactic of a digital interface. After I took this job, one wag on Twitter wrote that he hoped I’d be “Danny Pearl-ed.” He must have found it funny. My 11-year-old son didn’t.
No discussion of the evils of Twitter would be complete without trying to understand the 45th president’s fondness for it. It should be no surprise that he’s a keen user, since it’s the reptilian medium for the reptilian brain.
But it’s also ideally suited for his style of crowd politics: unmediated, blunt and burstlike. It’s how he escapes the softening influence of his advisers and speechwriters. It’s how he maintains the aura of charismatic authenticity that is the prerequisite of populist politics. It’s how he pretends to mingle with his followers while increasing his distance from them. Juan Perón would have loved Twitter.
Politics, like eros, can open the way to the elevation of our souls. Or it can do the opposite. Time for people who care about politics and souls to get off Twitter.