Twitter is at its best and worst when it transforms into a stage for very public meltdowns. By its very nature, the microblogging platform provides a potentially unlimited audience for those flashes of angry insight that might otherwise sink back into the quieter substrate of the psyche.
It shouldn’t come as a shock, then, that Twitter invites embarrassment—sometimes even outright shame—for celebrities and civilians alike. More surprisingly, it’s done much the same for companies, whose branded Twitter accounts seem just as subject to bursts of emotion, and the potential for mockery that ensues. Twitter is terrific at adding personality to brands and humanizing companies. That’s great for those brands and companies, so long as they remember that, for the most part, humans are terrible.
Consider the example of Tinder, the original swipe-right dating app. Tuesday night, Tinder’s official Twitter account exploded with a flurry of activity, a “tweetstorm” in Internet parlance, directed at Vanity Fair writer Nancy Jo Sales. Last week, Vanity Fair published an article by Sales about the contemporary hook-up culture Tinder helped create. Critical of this supposedly new scene—a “dating apocalypse,” in the widely quoted words of one of Sales’ sources—Sales suggests that Tinder and its ilk are changing the ways we court for the worse. In Slate, Amanda Marcotte mostly dismissed these concerns, noting, “Gross dudes were not invented by apps.” As Marcotte observes, Sales’ article belongs to the “grand tradition” of “[m]oral panics over technology” and deserves to be treated with skepticism.
Tinder might well have taken a similar approach and shrugged it off. It is our good fortune that the company declined to do so. On Tuesday, almost a week after Sales’ article appeared online, the company offered an initially indirect response. Earlier in the morning, Sales had tweeted a link to a description of a study, leading in with a quotation from the article, “Thirty percent of all Tinder users—who are supposed to be single—are married, per a new report from GlobalWebIndex.” Four hours later, Tinder replied to Sales, writing that the study she cited was incorrect and proposing “a factual conversation.”
To her credit, Sales took this offer seriously, asking for more data. At first, Tinder simply joked, “Little known fact: sex was invented in 2012 when Tinder was launched.” Almost two hours later, it answered Sales’ query, announcing that its data—apparently from a voluntary user survey—“says that [only] 1.7% of Tinder users are married.”
Once again, had Tinder stopped there, all might have been forgiven, the exchange dismissed as one of those brief, forgettable spats that are forever unfolding on social media. But, again, they did not, and so began the deluge.
In the next three minutes, Tinder tweeted almost 30 times, a flash flood of frustrated vitriol. Complaining that Sales’ article had drawn on a limited sample of the app’s users, Tinder suggested that she should have “reach[ed] out to us first … that’s what journalists typically do.” Acknowledging that some users just “want to hook up,” Tinder nevertheless insisted, “the vast majority … are looking for meaningful connections.” With the characteristic hyperbole of the argumentatively inflamed, they also asserted that “8 billion” otherwise impossible “connections … have been made … to date.” They did not clarify whether all of these connections—a number that exceeds the total population of the planet—had been “meaningful.”
Tinder’s response left other Twitter users predictably amused. Summing up the drama, one quipped, “lol is tinder mad,” the absence of a question mark clarifying that this wasn’t really a question. Tinder clearly was mad. BuzzFeed journalist Claudia Koerner later claimed that she received “a pitch from a PR person that Tinder was about to tweet storm.” While the messages may have been pre-planned—which would explain the rate at which they appeared—they still seemed to be coming from a very real, very personal place.
This made it all the funnier when Tinder’s replies turned geopolitical, proposing that it wasn’t just contributing to an existing dating culture, but actually changing the world for the better. “Talk to our many users in China and North Korea who find a way to meet people on Tinder,” read one tweet. (It did not offer contact information for those users.) This prompted the rejoinder of the night, a series of hilarious images by mysterious weird Twitter prankster Darth, in which Kim Jong-un expresses bafflement about the supposed prevalence of Tinder in his county.
No one, however, seemed to be commenting on how strange it was that a company was angry. Mitt Romney’s famously mocked remark about corporations notwithstanding, business are not people, whatever their legal status. But here we had an example of a business that appeared to be mad in personal way. Tinder is supposed to foment passion, not display it. The fact that it too seems capable of unrestrained emotion is deeply peculiar. It also may be consequence of the way Twitter works.
In a statement sent to journalists early Wednesday morning, a Tinder representative acknowledged that the company “overreacted” when it responded to Sales. Nevertheless, much of Tinder’s official messaging about the article corresponds to the claims it made on Twitter. Describing Tinder’s disappointment with the Vanity Fair article and seemingly alluding to the tweet storm, the spokesperson wrote, “Our intention was to highlight the many statistics and amazing stories that are sometimes left unpublished.” (Tinder did not respond to a request for clarification about which elements of the tweets constituted an overreaction.)
While Tinder’s statement doesn’t touch on mocked details such as the tweet about China and North Korea (though Wired suggests that Tinder reaffirmed the claim), it leaves the more general argument of the collected tweets intact. As such, the company’s tweetstorm ends up feeling like an official issuance from the company itself, not the consequence of the account’s manager going rogue.
Here, it’s worth remembering that whole business wasn’t even triggered by Sales’ article. Instead, it was Sales’ tweet about a study indicating that many of Twitter’s users are actually married. By 12:02 a.m. Eastern on the Aug. 12, almost 15 hours after she had posted it and four hours after Tinder began its rampage, only two people had retweeted Sales’ original missive. It seems likely that Tinder was monitoring Sales’ Twitter account. I picture the company observing her in the way you might watch someone who pissed you off at a party, waiting for your chance to get back at them.
Given that it took Tinder hours to comment, it’s tempting to imagine the company itself somehow steaming with anger, anger that had presumably been building since the article hit the Web the week before. As triggering incidents go, Sales’ first tweet seems almost insignificant, but that’s often the way that long-simmering rage emerges: It bursts out only after building up, even if the circumstances aren’t really right. Where the underlying frustrations may have a real cause, their actual expression is often abrupt, irrational, even inexplicable. While many of us act this way when our friends or family members irritate us, it’s odd to see the institutional voice of a brand following such a course.
Part of what’s strange about Twitter is that it puts every account on a theoretically equal playing field. Tinder may have more followers than Nancy Jo Sales, but Twitter restricts both accounts in the same way, and gives them the same tools to express their thoughts. Twitter’s restraints—its strict character limit, its peculiar systems for replying, and so on—make them resemble each other, creating the illusion that both are individuals, equally capable of pettiness, smugness, or any number of other fundamentally human affects.
Sales exhibits this potential just as well as Tinder itself does. As the evening wore on, she retweeted literally hundreds of messages from admirers and others celebrating that she had so successfully poked the bear. While every journalist I know has occasionally retweeted kind words from readers, there was something unflattering about Sales’ embrace of all this noise. Her celebration was every bit as excessive as Tinder’s condemnation of her.
While these very public emotions do nothing to flatter a successful journalist, they ring even odder when coming from a company. Sales, at least, is an actual human being, and her enthusiasm can be safely recognized as a product of that humanity. Yet when I read Tinder’s tweets, I can’t help but come away with the impression that someone is speaking to me out of them, someone indissociable from the fundamental essence of the company itself.
From a PR perspective, Twitter is great because it helps companies seem approachable, making them feel a little bit more like everyday folks. The trouble is that it encourages them to act a lot like regular folks too. And the more they do, the sillier they’re likely to look.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.