Twitter Is Weird
I got a letter last week. Its tone was awkward and amusing to me, so I posted a picture of it with a little jokey, Twitter-shaped observation:
I think the Democrats just threatened me: pic.twitter.com/wGvYInosk5
— Jonathan Coulton (@jonathancoulton) October 30, 2014
At first I got a couple replies from my immediate followers and the people I know, most of whom seemed to understand and share my take on it: that the letter was a little weird, ham fisted, and kind of dumb. It had the tone of a mobster threat (“Nice house. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.”) , but it was almost charmingly nonspecific, such that it didn’t really threaten anything at all (“…we will be interested to hear why not.”).
Within about 24 hours it had been retweeted enough times (currently 1800 retweets and 1000 favorites) that it found its way outside my most immediate circle of friends and followers, at which point things got weird. It started bouncing around a few right wing echo chambers, and it got picked up by some right wing blogs. It found its way into the feeds of people who had no idea who I am, what my politics are, or what my sense of humor is. And as it lost context, it started to take on all sorts of meanings depending on who was reading it. Some people took me literally and assumed that I actually felt threatened. Some of those people agreed that it was a real threat, while others thought I was being thin-skinned. Some people thought I was wrong or lying about it having come from the Democrats, and a few found it suspicious that I cropped the photo the way I did. Some people thought it was a Republican ploy. Some thought it sounded like classic union thuggery, others thought it sounded just like something Karl Rove would do.
I found it fascinating, and I have some thoughts on it. But first let me set the record straight on a couple of points. Here’s the whole letter:
I framed the original photo the way I did because I didn’t want to include my home address. I took the picture with my phone and didn’t feel like trying to figure out how to blur or cover a portion of it, so I just framed the important part. But you can see “Paid for by the New York State Democratic Committee” on the bottom. Also, (and this is part of what makes it kind of creepy) it is not on any letterhead, and it isn’t signed by anyone in particular.
Some facts about me: I usually vote for Democrats, because their politics usually align with mine. I’m not that political a person, but I do have some strong opinions, mostly about social issues, and usually I find myself agreeing with Democrats on those issues. I voted for Obama twice. I don’t consider myself to be particularly well-informed about all aspects of every political race, but I do my best to pay attention, to read and think, and to vote based on my understanding of issues and not an “us vs. them” mentality. I don’t fully understand economics or geopolitics, and I’m suspicious of anyone who claims that they do. I try to stay on top of local politics, but I have a hard time finding it interesting enough to do so, and as a result, I don’t always vote in local elections. I feel guilty about that. But sometimes I feel so uninformed that it feels wrong to vote based on a gut feeling based on how a candidate’s name looks to me when I see it for the first time in the voting booth.
I thought this letter was charmingly inept, which is why I tweeted about it. I didn’t actually feel threatened. I have since learned that this letter is likely based on some research that shows this kind of “vote shaming” is an effective way to get people to vote. The NY Times says this research was done by the creepily named Analyst Institute, an organization founded by “A.F.L.-C.I.O. officials and liberal allies.” It seems that both sides are trying it out in various ways.
So, wow. First, it seems clear to me that the reason this tweet of mine traveled so far so fast is that it’s pretty easy to fit it into whatever narrative you have in your head. We like evidence that seems to support what we already believe, and we like to retweet that evidence so everyone can see that we’ve been right all along. See, the Democrats/Republicans are sneaky/inept! This is what depresses me about politics and about social media – it’s very hard to have any kind of real discussion about this stuff. We’ve all carefully constructed our own customized echo chambers. We think what we think.
Second, context is everything, especially when you’re talking about 140 characters of mostly irony and sarcasm. And on Twitter, context is not something you can control. This tweet made total sense when it was in my echo chamber. Once it got outside that circle, it got re-interpreted in all sorts of ways. Since this began, there’s been a little tickle in the back of my skull reminding me that I will never be able to correct the many misunderstandings of my politics, my sense of humor, my threshold for feeling threatened, the spelling of my name, etc. After all, I can only reliably reach the people inside my immediate circle of followers, I can’t make anything go this wide on purpose. It’s not like this post is going to go viral. My tweet became a kind of a zombie broadcast, and I’ll never catch up to it now. Ultimately, and in this particular case, who cares, but I shudder to think about how I might feel right now if this had been something important.
Third, oh my gosh, there are some people out there who are really different from me. I think we forget this is true a lot of the time, because it’s so easy to build a mirrored sphere of people and ideas around ourselves – you look around and everyone you listen to seems to agree with you, so you must be right. I got this dizzy feeling of cognitive dissonance when someone would talk about how hopefully someday we’d “round up” all the progressives, or how this was typical “Democratic thuggery,” or the idea that this wasn’t the worst of it because the Democrats are rigging the voting machines, and anyway they only win elections because they lie and cheat. I think all that stuff about Republicans! Well not really, but the temptation is there to buy into those ideas, and those are definitely the kinds of narratives that are bouncing around in my own personal chamber. And just to be clear, I’m pretty solidly against the idea of “rounding up” anyone, regardless of their politics. (Although maybe those people were joking and I didn’t get it. I sure hope so.)
Even though I’m a little weirded out by this tweet having become a bit of a talking point for the right, I do think it’s a strange and creepy way to go about getting the vote out. And it is an actual letter I got, so there’s that. It’s a real thing that exists in the world, so sorry NY State Democrats, but this one’s on you. It didn’t become a talking point because I tweeted it, it became a talking point because it makes you look tone deaf, and it’s a little embarrassing. I get the intent behind it, and yes of course we should all vote, but I certainly think they could have been a little more artful about it, you know, with the words and stuff. Then again, who knows, maybe this will get the right people to the polls, and maybe this will be a net gain for the Democrats. I will never know.
That said, I’m not going to vote against the Democrats just because of this letter, as surprisingly many have suggested. My politics aren’t going to change just because some people in some office made a bad decision and then hit print. I happen to believe that both sides have the capacity to be pretty shady when it comes to winning elections. Indeed, I’m not all that surprised to hear that one side or the other is trying to get certain people to vote or not to vote, because I know the tiniest bit about how campaigns work. And I truly don’t think it’s that big a deal – if you’ve been paying attention at all, you can probably think of five worse examples of corruption in politics than this letter.
So I’m still going to make my voting decisions based on my evaluation of which issues matter, and which candidates are best, which is what we should all be doing. Revenge voting doesn’t make any kind of sense. Neither does falling for these narratives, these mythologies that turn the messy/beautiful democratic process into a story of good guys and bad guys. It’s just that kind of group think that makes us check out of the very difficult but essential process of thinking critically about what candidates say and do, and about how our government behaves. We all have to work hard at looking past the comfortably familiar images in that mirrored sphere, and make our own decisions about what’s right and true. And this goes for both the idiot right wing nut jobs AND the spineless nanny state liberal elites.
You should pay attention. You should vote. Most of all, you should think for yourself.
I CANNOT WAIT for the comment thread on this one…
As someone who probably doesn't have quite the same political beliefs as you, but is still a big fan, I thank you for this thoughtful and fair-minded post. We should definitely listen outside of our echo chambers, and I agree we'd probably find that we are more like our political opponents than we think.
I saw your original tweet of this letter and, like you, thought it was a little dumb but totally non-threatening. I chuckled at your comment about it. Then while radio station surfing, I heard a right wing talk show host (I think it was Glenn Beck) talking about it and how it sounded just like a veiled threat to him. I didn't put two and two together and realize that he or one of his followers picked it up from your tweet! Crazy.
I agree it's become nearly impossible to have an intelligent discussion about these issues, especially online. Reading any comments section for a political article just depresses me. It's always good to hear from intelligent folks like you who actually use their brains not their gut feelings or peer pressure to make those decisions.
And no matter whom you vote for, EVERYBODY VOTE! (but make it an educated vote, please)
The thing is, it seems threatening because it is a threat. Other Dem groups have sent targeted letters out to neighborhoods listing exactly who on a block did and did not vote in the last election. It's creepy, and it should be shunned.
Personally, I'm not one of these "everybody vote!" types. If you aren't following along and aren't interested enough to know why you (you personally) should vote, then... you probably shouldn't. Otherwise it ends up all being "rah rah my team yay!" and "I like the way that guy eats soup, so I'm going to put him in charge of the city/state/country/world."
Before the hordes arrive, let me just say -- well done, JoCo. There isn't a single word in this post I could find fault or disagree with.
I don't have much to add, except that I hope one day Twitter, Facebook, and all other forms of communication (not limited to social media) figure out a way to auto-detect overreaction to whimsical little bits of social commentary and automatically insert an "EVERYBODY CALM THE &#*@ DOWN" message.
Of course, scientific efforts to develop the sarcasm detector this would require have thus far proven unsuccessful (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSy5mEcmgwU), but I remain hopeful.
I guess the only sensible thing left to do is make a song out of the experience...
I got a letter with a similar message, but a markedly different tone. It basically had a checklist, saying "2010: You voted! 2012: You voted! 2014: ???? Hope you keep the streak going!"
So, the same point... they're paying attention to voter records and want me to know that, but nothing even vaguely threatening or disconcerting.
Nice post! I'm sure it took way longer than you thought it would when you started it. Keep up the good work...except for the whole voting along party lines thing ;-)
I live down South. Down here, it would have totally been the Republicans who would have sent this letter to me. I'm kinda surprised that they haven't, except that I've been voting locally the last few times, since I've got kids in public schools. These tactics aren't particular to any one side - just the dominant side in any area, trying to stay that way. Hopefully you won't have too much blowback regarding this!
Wow. I ever get that from any organization, I'm finding their phone number, calling them up, and telling them that if I vote or don't vote, it's none of their damn business why not, and don't expect me to be this polite if they ever take it upon themselves to inquire.
I think robo-calls should be outlawed, but this letter takes the cake.
On the other hand, I saw a letter like this from Republicans implying that people would know if you didn't vote Republican! So both parties are being idiots (no surprise).
I'm glad you blacked out your address, but I'm pretty sure the barcode you left is the same information for the right code reader. You might want to black that out, too.
Tone deaf is the exactly right description of that letter. Sheesh.
You may also wish to redact the barcode beneath your address on that letter.
This whole conversation is so weird.
I live in Australia. Voting is compulsory. If you don't vote you get a polite " please explain" letter and if you can't explain, you get fined.
Mind you, because voting is compulsory,its also easier to vote- Booths open on Saturdays, postal voting, pre-polling day voting, hospital voting booths that visit your bedside.
Just the thought that people would not want to help decide (by voting) who runs their country is weird. You don't know about the candidates? Why not? Why is this not important to you?
And the thought that people are discouraged from voting in some places (by making it difficult to get to pollling booths, long lines, short opening hours for booths) is sad
"I CANNOT WAIT for the comment thread on this one…"
Shouldn't it be "I will be very interested to hear why you dont comment to this one?" :)
Jef Spaleta says
Take away lesson from this whole experience.
Twitter desperately need a sarcasm font.
Gant Punzel says
Welp, I always knew you were a right wing communist nutjob welfare mother and now you spelled it all out for everyone to see. Good luck getting me to come to your next show Mr. Springsteen. I'm out. Blessed be & let's keep Christ in Christmas.
Alec Baldwin Charles Nielsen says
R Cobourn says
My 18 year old son for one of these accusing him off failing to vote in the last 4 elections. Duh, apparently they wanted him to start voting at age 10.
Pro tip: register as an independent.
Weirdly enough, I live in a different state and received the same letter, almost right down to the very same words. I'm sure there's an accurate Grumpy Cat face that describes how I felt about it but, yeah, I don't see anything wrong with your response (other than it does certainly sound like song fodder).
Dear Jonathan Coulton,
We're watching you while you vote. Nice butt.
I live in Wisconsin, and two years ago I got one of these from a Republican group, but it listed all of the registered voters, addresses and voting records for every person who lived on my block. I went ballistic because it basically announced to everyone currently living on my block (as opposed to for the previous election as was made clear by who they had listed as my neighbors) that I lived in my house as a single woman. I lived in a neighborhood in which that would not be good information to have made public. They did not answer calls or a letter complaining about this unconscionable intimidation tactic. I felt that for my safety I should either move or remove my name from voter registration polls! I moved out of that neighborhood a year later. Ironically I received a similar letter last week to the one Jonathan posted above and was seriously relieved it was not as threatening or intrusive as the previous one.
I got one of these two years ago for that election. One thing I learned is that you can not know who sent it.
But looking at the letter I got, it became clear that the "sender's name" was just a name (with email) that they had picked off a voter list, and that it was designed to be irritating. People who got them were getting angry at the Democrats, and particularly at North Carolina's Secretary of State, because the letter stated that "your name and the fact that you voted early were in public records available from the Secretary of State".
Putting everything together, we realized that the Secretary of State (a democrat) was up for reelection, and that in North Carolina the Secretary of State didn't have such records -- here that is kept and administered by the county Board of Election in each county.
So, this was probably a Republican letter from out-of-state, designed to get people angry at the democrats, and Obama, and the incumbent Secretary.
Yours may be a Republican impersonation as well.
It's in the Times blog now. http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/11/03/democrats-try-scaring-voters-to-the-polls/
Again, two years ago a bunch of us got creepy letters that got us angry at the Democrats, and then we realized it was a Republican trick.
One of them was a guy who wrote about it in his blog ( http://tomtac.livejournal.com/7665.html ) and called it "Time for Dirty Tricks".
I totally got the original post.
At the Jonathan Coulton concert a few years ago in San Francisco:
Paul (of Paul and Storm):... are there any conservative nerds?
Crowd: (murmurs disapproval)
Mrs. JRM: Shhhhhhhhh!
The lesbian couple near me glared at me a little. But the Coulton crowd is more nerd-cool than political; I was not (as the more-conservative-than-JRM Mrs. JRM feared) hanged by the neck until someone's Prius was recharged. I hang in a lot of crowds that are very heavily liberal (nerds, heathens) but the crowds I hang in don't send those letters. I think if you're liberal, the lesson here is that The Side of Righteousness sometimes does awful things. (I am well aware of the failings of My Side of Righteousness.)
I got one, but it wasn't a letter. It was a flyer from my local Democratic state senate candidate's campaign, which noted that "Records indicate you voted in the past," and "We may contact you after the election to hear about your voting experience."
Perhaps a wee bit creepier than yours, but a bit of a waste, actually, since the Democrats - who control the state government here in Colorado - made it so that every (presumably) eligible voter in the state got a mail-in ballot and there are no polling places with voting machines for this election, my ballot has already been turned in.
My only thought is that people actually read this crap instead of chuckimg it out. I am a registered Republican and will never be anythimg else. I would have only voted for one Democrat in my lifetime and that would have been JFK but I was a child back then. With that being said, All mail or email from political candidates is self serving. It is bunk first to last and should be ignored. Look at how they voted on issues if you want to know how to vote. Listen to speeches they have made and ferret out the truth. Be pro active and not lazy as it takes effort to really know who to choose. most of all if you don't use your right to vote keep your mouth shut as you have no right to complain.
Leila Zucker says
I think I would be very happy living inside your particular mirrored sphere echo chamber. It appears to be based on rational thought with a liberal dash of sarcasm. This is an excellent essay on the natural whisper-down-the-lane evolution of comments in the context of the zombie tweet diaspora. Fnord.
Sue Donym says
Interesting, the letter, your tweet and the subsequent chaos-but one issue...I know it is hard to care about local elections. I was guilty...until a crazy woman took over the school board of my hometown and it garnered national attention-at least from the boards that look at that stuff. So now I vote-in every election...every primary...there are so many websites and voter information available on the internet so if you want to make an educated choice, which you mention-it can be done and in a mostly painless manner. Even in elections where it seems like my vote did not count-I know I did the very least I could do-which was show up and vote for the candidates who come as close as possible to my beliefs.
This is the best, most interesting and thoughtful post I have read from JoCo for awhile. I sincerely enjoyed reading it and I hope that other things of interest along these lines are forthcoming. It's kind of a bizarre and yes somewhat frightening happening that occurred from start to finish, but it was interesting and topical and would be a good case study for modern communications coursework, etc.... At the very least it is interesting to read and think about. I certainly don't envy Jonathan for finding himself in the middle of this all, though. I guess one take-away I have from this is, to be careful what you post or tweet because you never know where it might end up and with what consequences for you. Nice to hear from Jonathan again especially something thoughtful and of substance. Hopefully more will be forthcoming. xo, AD
William Burr says
Whoah, that is definitely an implied threat. "If you don't do X, you'll be hearing from us" is a threat. I can just hear "Every Breath You Take" playing while reading that letter.
Presumably this is targeted at people they think will vote along their lines. How could they possibly think that was a good idea?