Press Box

Twitter in a Wringer

What is it about Twitter that gets people into trouble?

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall lost his endorsement deal from Champion sports apparel last week for tweeting his doubts that the World Trade Center towers were brought down by hijacked jetliners and for expressing his sentiments that we had “only heard one side” of the Osama Bin Laden story.

Mendenhall quickly backed off from the pair of tweets. He deleted the 9/11 remark and published a blog post explaining that he wasn’t a Bin Laden supporter. But it was too late. He had already joined the ranks of high-profile users who’ve been burned by microblogging.

Keith Olbermann previously stepped in it with a tweet stating that conservative commentator S.E. Cupp was “a perfect demonstration of the necessity of the work Planned Parenthood does.” This was interpreted by some as a wish that Cupp had been aborted, which Olbermann denied. Journalist Nir Rosen suffered almost universal condemnation when he joked about Lara Logan’s sexual assault on Twitter.

Comedian Gilbert Gottfried lost his Aflac gig when he directed his dark humor at the Japanese tsunami. More than a year ago, Washington Post Managing Editor Raju Narisetti gave himself a Twitter timeout after tweeting this view: “We can incur all sorts of federal deficits for wars and what not. But we have to promise not to increase it by $1 for healthcare reform? Sad.”

Others tripped up by Twitter’s spontaneity include Octavia Nasr, who got fired by CNN for praising Hezbollah’s spiritual leader upon his death, and New York Times reporter David Carr, who untweeted something he quickly decided was in poor taste. Tucker Carlson got in trouble for tweeting, “[Sarah] Palin’s popularity falling in Iowa, but maintains lead to become supreme commander of Milfistan.” He formally apologized and deleted the tweet.

Perhaps because my mouth already yawns larger than anybody else’s in the room, none of these tweets upsets me, so I never thought any of these folks should have been sacked, sullied, suspended, shamed, or chagrined for their 140-character testimonials. (Maybe that’s why I’m not in management.)

Yet, none of these tweeters should have been surprised that their tweets got them in trouble. They know the boundaries, right? So why did they take the risk, or in the case of Gottfried, take the same risk over and over again? And given my propensities, why haven’t I suffered Twitter remorse yet?

I reject the idea that Twitter trips up naïve users such as Mendenhall and other athletes who don’t fully understand how social media works, as Washington Post sports columnist Jason Reid recently wrote. If that were the case, why did Olbermann and Carlson get into Twitter trouble? As TV talk-show hosts, they’re experts in maintaining second-by-second media discipline. I also don’t think the 140-character count of Twitter is much of an excuse, either. I doubt if any of the controversial tweets in question could have been avoided had the writers used more space. It appears all of them wanted to provoke or stimulate their readers from the get-go. Nor do I think that Twitter turns the meek into blowhards, a proposition I’m willing to test with a scientific experiment. And don’t even try the “open microphone” excuse on me.

What’s more likely is that most of us say five or six provocative things a day about our friends, co-workers, the baristas at our coffee shop, ethnic groups, athletes, celebrities, politicians, other public figures, and anybody else who falls into our sightlines. Depending on the subject, we either mutter the comments so nobody can be outraged, or we pick an audience sympathetic to our views, thereby staying out of trouble.

In the pre-Twitter days, nobody could attract an audience of a hundred or a thousand instantaneously unless they hosted a radio show or commandeered a stage. Even daily newspaper columnists, who mine controversy for a living, had to triple-jump over an editor, a copy desk, and space constraints to deposit a barbed idea in print. Blogs have always had the potential to “offend,” but I don’t recall them having provoked the sort of responses tweets do. Perhaps composing more than 140 characters at a time pushes the id back a little bit, as my colleague Timothy Noah says.

The thing that makes tweets most vulnerable is that the Twitter interface lends itself perfectly to expressing the anger of the busybodies who take umbrage at the simpliest statement. They can amplify the original comment via retweets and re-retweets to the point that they spark a technological lynching.

Pre-Twitter, our most extreme comments tended to stay inside a private space populated by, at most, a couple of dozen friends and colleagues. But Twitter has shrunk private space—or, to be more positive about it, enlarged public space to the size of an NBA arena—making it easy for any jerkish utterance to spread so long as its composer has access to a computer, an account, a couple hundred followers, and 15 seconds to post. Private space still exists, of course. Few of us tweet details about our sex lives or personal stuff about our families, and I’ve yet to see a live tweet from an average person’s funeral.

But if Facebook is any guide, those Twitter taboos will probably fall. People are happy to express their intimate lives on Facebook, announcing divorces, declaring that their antidepressants have stopped working, sharing the results of their colonoscopies, and publishing bathroom self-portraits. As the range of topics suitable for tweeting becomes renormalized to the Facebook level, I suspect that the demand for apologies for indiscreet tweets will likewise tumble.

Maybe we’ve already reached that point. Tucker Carlson’s website is going great guns, Keith Olbermann has a new job, Rashard Mendenhall will start for the Steelers in the fall (if there is an NFL season), Raju Narisetti is still a managing editor of the Washington Post, and Nir Rosen seems to be working. That Mendenhall and Gottfried lost their corporate gigs probably has more to do with timidity in the advertising industry than it does with Twitter. Now if only somebody in the U.S. press would give Octavia Nasr a high-profile job, I would be a happy man.

Why haven’t I committed Twittercide yet? Because I’m wise enough to reserve my nastiest transgressions for my columns, where, hidden in my thicket of prose, nobody seems to notice them.


Transgress in 140 characters to and monitor my Twitter feed for the offensive. (Email may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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