Twitter Fights Are Like Eating All the Brownies

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Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) pair fighting while a third watches, Minnesota
Photo: Jim Brandenburg/Minden Pictures/Corbis

Earlier this week, Annie Lowrey and Abe Riesman posted a wonderful conversation they had about why both of them have (mostly) left Twitter in the last few months. The part that stuck out to me the most had to do with the episode that brought about Abe’s “epiphany” that the social-networking app was no longer for him.

Like any good epiphany, it involved Star Wars:

I’d tweeted something about Star Wars, and someone I don’t know somehow saw it and tweeted a link to it with a snarky comment attached. At that point, a notorious asshole whose name I won’t mention saw that person’s tweet and retweeted it. All of a sudden, dozens and dozens of the asshole’s followers decided to hurl insults at me and do weird stuff like “star-fucking” me, which refers to the process of favoriting every tweet a person has tweeted until the star-fucked user catches wind and blocks the star-fucker. It could have been a million times worse (after all, I’m not a woman, so no one threatened to rape me), but it was pretty demoralizing and ruined an otherwise pleasant day.

This got me thinking about my own similar incidents — those (thankfully) few times when my feed filled with vitriolic trolls and I had trouble just ignoring them. What’s so weird about the phenomenon of getting caught up in this sort of Twitter hate-fest is the extent to which you find yourself repeatedly engaging with people you care nothing, in real terms, about — often people you didn’t even know existed until the moment they tweeted something nasty at you, and whose sole characteristics are a username and an avatar (or, in many cases, that notorious egg). (To be clear, I’m drawing a big, bold line between these relatively petty incidents and social-media megashamings in which people can literally be driven from their homes. Those are different beasts entirely.)

If you’ve ever been through this, you know that you never, ever come away feeling good after. However it goes down and whatever you say, the takeaway is not, Damn was I clever in rebutting those fools! It’s more a hangover. So why do some of us do it repeatedly? My theory is that we misinterpret the situation in a key way, and that brownies can help explain what’s going on.

Think about what’s going on when you eat six or seven (or eight!) brownies, and then, before you can even brush all the crumbs off your chin, wonder why the hell you did it. When you eat all the brownies, it’s because some primal part of you that was programmed to desperately seek out calories misinterpreted the situation and thought those brownies were important for you to eat. Usually you can keep that part reined in, but, whether through stress or alcohol or whatever else, this time it won out, and poof — brownies all gone. You didn’t need them, but your body felt like it did. God knows that some overly specific, politicized, evolutionary explanations for human behavior are really dumb, but there’s real truth in the idea that there are ancient forces swirling in us at all times, and that, in our more vulnerable moments, they seize undue influence.

Swap hunger for social standing, and something like that is going on with Twitter. We’re built to care deeply and viscerally about how we’re seen by others. Historically, it could be a life-and-death thing — has the village turned against you? Will you get a share of the meat? During a Twitter hate-fest, suddenly it feels like an alarming number of people are against you in an important way, and that they are diminishing your standing in the eyes of the wider (Twitter) world.

In reality, it’s all shallow and ephemeral, since anyone with fingers can fire off a mean tweet or retweet bile. But that’s easy to say when you’re not the one getting 10 or 20 or 50 mean tweets! Your brain misinterprets this social input as though it were somehow meaningful, as though it had anything to do with anything. It feels like ancient self-preservation structures activate. These people have me all wrong! I have to defend myself, prove to the community that I’m better and smarter than they say I am!

In reality, of course, the best thing to do is just to walk away. Just like it’s best to savor only a single brownie. Or maybe not put yourself in the same room as a tray of them in the first place.

Twitter Fights Are Like Eating All the Brownies