The Washington Post published an essay by Michael S. Rosenwald this weekend decrying the rise of the "Twitter Police," the vocal malcontents who get their rocks off whinging about (and at) media types who displease them. Rosenwald’s piece is in part a lament for a better time, when the scolding scolds were ignorable because they kept their crankery to hand-written letters or, if they were feeling particularly adventurous, poster board.
But the times, they have a-changed and we live in the era of instant feedback, when anyone with half-a-brain can fire off a sarcastic tweet in the time it takes one to read "anyone with half-a-brain can fire off a sarcastic tweet." As Rosenwald reports, this isn’t really new behavior, just a faster iteration of old behavior:
The sociologists, behavioral scientists and economists who study this stuff tend to take the profound but not-so-surprising view that such herd mentality online is simply the relocation of behavior that homo sapiens has been displaying since the hunter-gatherer days, when small groups of people banded together to protect tribes against large animals.
"We have tended to organize ourselves in such a way where we come to have shared values, and we jointly will work to prevent people from violating those values," said James Fowler, a University of California at San Diego political scientist and co-author of "Connected." "I tell people all the time that we have the same brain we had before Facebook, before Twitter. It’s unreasonable to think that our behavior will change."
Of course, Twitter serves not so much to bring people together in defense as it does to bring them together to attack. The scolds are taking down mastodons, not defending the group from cheetahs. Over at TNR, Lydia DePillis stands up for the aggrieved:
God forbid viewers should be able to register their disapproval without going through all that! Perhaps Twitter would be more interesting if they just kept their reactions to themselves. … If some journalists don’t have the fortitude to tune out these stone-throwers—just as they do, say, article commenters—then maybe we should tune them out, too? Even when journalists do make mistakes worth tweeting about, the balance of his or her good work will eventually outshine the outrage.
What I find most interesting about the Twitter Police is not that they exist or that they attempt to stifle discourse—the scolding scolds always do—but that the targets of their outrage are so amazingly random. As the managing editor of an outfit firmly committed to annoying the scolds, it never ceases to surprise me what catches fire on Twitter.
Free Beacon compliments a female basketball player for being "feminine and desirable, but not a slut." bit.ly/12LaFQX
— Sam Stein (@samsteinhp) April 25, 2013
Now, I also had an issue with Bobby’s post; specifically, his argument that Skylar Diggins is "arguably the most popular female athlete on the planet." That is not only obviously silly but also factually inaccurate. However, the glaring factual inaccuracy is not what people freaked out about. Oh no. They freaked out because Bobby said a woman wasn’t slutty. Wasn’t. Was not.
There was much confusion in the Free Beacon office, I can assure you.
Similarly, there was the time that the Free Beacon published a piece on a bunch of NBA stars raising money for Barack Obama. It included the following paragraph:
Politico reports that the Obama campaign has announced the "Obama Classic," a fundraiser starring former and current NBA stars. Those announced to attend include failed baseball player Michael Jordan, "Ewing Theory" namesake Patrick Ewing, and anti-police activist Carmelo Anthony.
I thought that the shot at Carmelo Anthony might ruffle some feathers. Indeed, the rest of the piece is about Anthony’s involvement with the despicable "stop snitchin’" crowd. But no, that’s not what got the mob howling. Rather, they were perturbed by the appellation attached to Michael Jordan: "failed baseball player."
Is there a phrase as dumb as "failed baseball player Michael Jordan"? Best I've got: Devil's Advocate star Al Pacino bit.ly/PDsVkq
— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) August 23, 2012
Fact: Devil’s Advocate is a hundred times better at being a movie than Michael Jordan was at being a baseball player.
The Twitter Cops also have weirdly persnickety double standards, which I find infuriating. For instance, when the Free Beacon highlighted the Twitter feed of Katherine Fenton—the young lady in the townhall debate between Obama and Mitt Romney who asked the remarkably dumb question about the gender pay gap—we were the worstest people ever and the super serial people were happy to announce that fact:
Remember, the Washington Free Beacon is an embarrassing place to work. freebeacon.com/party-girl-deb…
— Josh Barro (@jbarro) October 17, 2012
Right-wing attacks on the young woman who asked the pay equity question are absolutely disgusting.bit.ly/U5gqG4
— Matt Ortega (@MattOrtega) October 17, 2012
When the Internet took it upon themselves to expose the identity of the Hero of Delta Gamma, however, no one said boo. Highlighting the publicly available feed of a grown woman who had made herself part of the presidential campaign gets the Twitter Cops all riled up. But publishing a college student's private email, tracking down the author’s personal information, and splashing it all over the Internet so as to make her the subject of fun is totally fine. As I sniped at the time, "Nice double standard you have there, Internet."
The randomness of the Twitter Police is far more dangerous than their mere existence. I realize that, for many, Twitter is just a way to show all the right people you have all the right opinions. But the scolding scolds should try to deliver their bile in a slightly more even-handed manner.