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On Tuesday, U.S. Olympic gymnast, Simone Biles, withdrew from the Olympic team event. You’ve likely heard about this so I won’t waste time with a recap but it prompted a lot of nasty commentary. A day later, this was on the side of my Twitter feed, courtesy of the site’s trending topics:
The reference here is a very stupid tweet from a writer who relishes in culture war skirmishes (his ragebait take before this one was that ‘men and women aren’t equal’). He’s a troll who thrives off of engagement, and this take is a clown show. But that’s a feature, not a bug. When “libs” dunk on him for being aggressively wrong, he can use the reaction to say that somebody like Biles is ‘untouchable’ and that the left ‘worships’ her and that the ‘self-care’ millennial attitude is an epidemic that is weakening America’s status as a world power. My god I’m exhausted.
Anyhow, this is a bad tweet and likely also bait. Sadly, we’re probably not going to stop people from dunking on Twitter because it is cathartic and the planet is dying and, hey, get your kicks while you can.
But! Twitter definitely doesn’t have to go ahead and single this little culture war skirmish out as breaking news. I’ve already written at length why this is bad but it bears repeating. Essentially, Twitter has decided that ‘Troll Makes Bad Tweet’ is major, national news, which it is not. While not 100% analogous, this type of ‘trending’ aggregation is somewhat similar to what places like Fox News do when they pick out tiny local stories and broadcast them to big national audiences. It distorts reality, flattens context, and invites a whole bunch of people to jump in and get good and mad.
Mostly, this is just stupid. But I also think it’s instructive as to how we’ve ended up where we are, discourse-wise.
In its online iteration, the Simone Biles conversation has immediately becomes a proxy for Every Single Thing — politics, geopolitics, American Pride, privilege, race, gender, “woke self care culture,” coddled generations, you name it. The news about Biles was so immediately subsumed by the culture war that it honestly took me a few minutes at first to figure out that she withdrawing from the Olympics on grounds of her mental health. It looks like I’m not alone:
Biles as proxy for ‘a country gone soft’ wasn’t the second or third day conversation; it was the opening salvo in a conversation about a person who, as Billy Binion at Reason wrote, “doesn't exist to make America proud.”
I’m not saying Biles’ narrative is wholly divorced from these broader topics. Biles is a massively popular public figure and her decision to prioritize herself is part of a broader trend of athletes (and especially female athletes) setting boundaries and renegotiating what they owe the public and institutions. Still, it seems the cultural conversation around Biles for the past 36 hours was never really centered around this extremely talented athlete — who also happens to be a human being — or the sport, or the Olympics, or mental health. Biles, as an individual, didn’t matter.
Instead, all that actually mattered was whatever argument people felt like having. The specifics of her decision weren’t actually considered. They were cherrypicked, and transformed into crucial data points for ongoing meta-narratives about everything in the world and how it works. But, as is so often the case, tidy events that explain everything often end up meaning very little.
The Twitter trending widget yet again both facilitates and perfectly illustrates this dynamic. Matt Walsh’s factually wrong tweet is arguably the least helpful lens through which to consume or even discuss this news story. Click on it and you will learn nothing. You might laugh or get angry; You might join in on a dunk. But I promise you’ll actually learn nothing.
What will happen though, is that you will be forced — if just for a moment — to view Biles’ story through the flattened, shitty culture war lens. Maybe that will mean nothing to you, and you’ll go about your day unperturbed. More likely, it’ll stick around in your head as a tiny data point. Depending on your ideology, you might see it as further proof that MAGA-adjacent chuds are awful, racist jabronis looking to weaponize every story. Or you might see it as proof that the left is DEFENDING THEIR QUEEN or glorifying failure. In either instance, you just get the feeling that you’re surrounded by people who are deeply foolish and deranged — perhaps dangerously so. This realization might not send you into a depression, but it just generally feels bad.
Engaging with Twitter’s latest trending beef will not lead you to a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the issue. It will, however, help convince you that the broader cultural and political discourse is unredeemably toxic — a mindset that hails you, as user, to join in and fight, as there are clearly assholes everywhere that need defeating.
And this is the signal, out of millions, that Twitter decided to boost.
Maybe the best way to view the Biles controversy and every other controversy is through this intractable culture war lens. Maybe this garbage trending feature is actually a service that offers us a reliable indicator of how angry and fucked up we are as a country. It’s possible. But I’m curious what we gain, as a society, from engaging this way. I’ve stared into the toxic, beating heart of culture war Twitter for years, and I don’t believe I’ve ever received anything in return that has made me a better, more empathetic person. Instead, the process has stolen a great deal of my optimism and a bit of my trust in fellow humans. I’ve been able to temper this feeling by living in spaces that aren’t Twitter or social media. But it’s a lie to say there hasn’t been some damage.
I write a lot about bad things on Twitter, in part because I think the platform has outsize influence over how so much of our media is made and how stories are framed. If you spend enough time on these sites, as most journalists do, it leaves a mark.
Which is why, as a form of closing, I want to talk about the two most corrosive side effects of Twitter Brain on display right now. The first is the desire to jam every story into the same and highly engaging culture war narratives. It’s an editorial choice and one that has worked so well for news organizations over time that Twitter’s trending team has begun to mimic it. Hence: the Biles trending framing.
The second side effect is what happens when we’re constantly consuming news events through this frame. Those with Twitter Brain start to feel totally overwhelmed by oppositional forces, bombarded by the worst voices, wanting to hide from them but also eager to resist. But that resistance — the dunk retweeting in particular — unwittingly propagates those voices and, no matter how unwittingly, increase their power.
We have to break this cycle somehow. The quickest way is to stop viewing online spats as entertainment or even — barring exceptions — as deeply newsworthy. Those of us who write and think publicly have to stop trying to frame every story and pseudo-event as microcosm of every major systemic problem. We need to starve those who thrive off attention as a means to accumulate power and money and to make the world a shittier place.
But even then, I’m not sure it’ll work — and we are especially doomed to fail if the platforms like Twitter fail to see that the way their services flatten all discourse into the same intractable arguments.
Sometimes I feel sheepish, writing yet again about Twitter’s weird sidebar of Trending Topics. It is, after all, a small feature of a smallish platform. But their choices are clarifying. Twitter sees providing quick, curated access to toxic but engaging internet beefs as a meaningful part of its service. That the company seems enthused and not mortified by this is a truly dismal indicator that anything will change.
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