Roseanne Was a Rare Moment Where the Twitter Mob Got It Right
No one should shed any tears for the sitcom star, but it's time to look at the broader dynamics of what's become a toxic social media site.
Photo by Vera Anderson/Wireimage
Welcome to Evesplaining, politics writer Eve Peyser's column about why everyone else is wrong and she's right.
The easiest route to fast fame these days is creating controversy explosive enough to hold the attention of social media users and the press for more than 15 seconds. (See: Tomi Lahren, Logan Paul, Lil Tay, et al.) But what virality giveth, it can taketh away in a hurry, as Roseanne Barr found out when her online behavior—which has been erratic and loathsome for years—got too racist for ABC, which immediately canceled her hit sitcom reboot after Barr compared former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett to a monkey. (Her talent agency also dumped her.)
In part, ABC’s swift reaction to Barr’s tweet is a result of the increasing politicization of the entertainment industry in the Trump era. The chaos of Donald Trump's White House, along with the president’s willingness to say the quiet part loud, has turned any Twitter user to the left of Mike Pence into a part-time activist. A TV network that continued to give a platform to a star who repeatedly goes out of her way to remind the world how racist she is would have a lot of questions to answer. Even Roseanne’s relatively high ratings probably weren’t worth that headache.
But it wasn’t incidental that Barr’s fall happened on Twitter, a social network practically designed for people to render themselves a liability. We seldom hear about the “Facebook mob” or the “Instagram mob,” even though the former has 2.2 billion active users, and the latter has over 800 million active users, making Twitter’s 330 million active users seem paltry by comparison.
The difference comes from how people interact with these sites. Facebook is set up as a social network people use to communicate with "friends" they already know, while Instagram is based on images as opposed to text, and the comments section isn’t highlighted in the same way as a user’s individual posts are. Twitter, where the majority of accounts are public, is designed so that a reply to a tweet visually appears to have the same weight as the tweet itself. Moreover, Twitter is the preferred social network of journalists, politicians, and many celebrities—it’s a place you go to communicate with people you don’t know personally. For a lot of users, even famous users, the temptation to type something extremely stupid into that text box and hit “send tweet” seems to be irresistible—and any questionable tweet travels around the internet at the speed of light.
The Twitter mob has wielded power since “President Donald Trump” was a joke. During the Gamergate controversy of 2014, where sexist gamers targeted video game developer Zoë Quinn and other prominent women in the field under the guise of “ethics in gaming journalism,” the men leading the crusade successfully campaigned to get companies to pull their advertisements from Gawker after one of the site’s writers jokingly tweeted, “Bring back bullying.” (Full disclosure: I worked for Gawker Media prior to tech billionaire Peter Thiel successfully bankrupting the website, and Quinn has written for VICE.) Bullying, as it turns out, never went away. Twitter users, especially women, are routinely harassed. Gleeful outrage doesn't just target powerful people who use the platform to propagate hatred and bigotry like Barr, it can also be used to uproot the lives of ordinary bad tweeters (see: Justine Sacco), to little if any positive effect.
Few people are really defending Barr, whose political views were obviously unhinged even before her recent Twitter rants. But we should be thinking more broadly about the dynamics of a site that has come to occupy a weirdly powerful place in the culture.
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Saturday Night Live writer Katie Rich tweeted a tasteless joke about Barron Trump that generated so much outrage—from people all across the political spectrum—that NBC suspended her from the show for six months. Around the same time, after the political journalist Julia Ioffe crudely joked that the then president-elect might be “fucking his daughter” on Twitter, the backlash was so swift that she was fired from her job at Politico (luckily for her, she was then hired by The Atlantic).
The problem is that on Twitter the worst, most incendiary opinions are often the ones that get amplified, usually because people of all political persuasions love dunking on and ratio-ing bad tweets. Scolding a bad tweeter for their social media sins is an easy way to score a couple retweets and let your audience know that you are smarter than whoever you’re lightly cyberbullying.
This is why even Twitter’s most active users, like me, generally understand the website as a toxic cesspool that mostly functions as a place to stay updated on the latest news and scold random people and celebrities. I often question why I stay on the platform, but as a journalist it’s a useful career tool, and as a chronic oversharer, I’m always keen to share my most inane thoughts with a larger audience. But it's obvious that the site has been going downhill for a long time.
Once upon a time Twitter was fun because it was a place where people could find out what famous people did in their spare time, where reporters dumped nuggets from their notebooks and networked with one another, where comedians workshopped jokes and the internet-savvy memed their hearts out, a forum where people thought out loud. Maybe it was inevitable that Twitter transformed into the place you go to condemn others and be condemned yourself, but in any case that's what it is now.
The solution to this is arguably pretty simple: To quote Hillary Clinton, “delete your account.” For any person with a public persona (or not), the risks of tweeting far outweigh the benefits. If Barr knows what’s best for her, she will soon follow through on her promise to leave Twitter, but as I write this, she’s still tweeting away. Not that her leaving would solve the problems plaguing the Twitter ecosystem.
I actually don't think there's much we can do to make Twitter better. I hope people will eventually tire themselves out, like a baby crying herself to sleep, and feel less inclined to participate in the viral outrage of the day. But the site's interface rewards exactly the opposite type of behavior. Vitriol, not nuance, is what people share and amplify. Barr lost her show for being racist online, but that doesn't demonstrate toxicity isn't welcome on Twitter—it just means she went a little too far.
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