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…