The first time a DM on Twitter changed my life, I was in crisis. I was working for a small Texas newspaper, out of sick days, and needing gallbladder surgery. But about 24 hours after I gave my two weeks’ notice, the universe handed me a parachute.
I was packing my police scanner, work iPad, recorder, and notebooks for a memorial service. It was going to be a tough night on the job. The police chief of a small town had been shot to death. He had many young children, and I knew I’d witness their grief. His widowed wife’s grief. The grief of the community.
I knew, from experience, that I would feel unwelcome and exploitative even as I did my best to be sensitive and empathetic and compassionate. I was dreading it. And then I got a notification. It was a DM on Twitter.
Nov. 10, 2015, at 4:13 p.m: “Olivia—this is John Avlon, EIC of The Daily Beast. Got time for a quick call re: an open position here? If interested, send your best cell and email.”
After the memorial service, I wiped my tears, and then had a quick call with John from my car. A month later, I was working in Manhattan, sans gallbladder.
This isn’t the kind of story that normally pops into your head when you hear the words “DM sliding,” but it’s a classic example of how Twitter enabled exposure and connections that otherwise might have been impossible. I’d gotten the attention of the Daily Beast by tweeting my way through local events, like former Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis’ famous filibuster and the Waco biker shooting, which in turn led to appearances on CNN and MSNBC. I’m keenly aware that the national attention my reporting received at the start of my career may not have been possible in the days before Twitter changed the digital media landscape.
As the chaos sowed by Elon Musk has many of us contemplating what we might do in a world without this deranged bird app, I’m thinking about just how life-changing—and sometimes horrible—the direct message feature has been. Musk now technically owns the content of all our “private” notes, and there’s a lot happening in mine. I used my DMs to find and talk to interview subjects. In DMs, I connected with other journalists who have PTSD, one of whom recommended my current—and invaluable—therapist. Through DMs, I became friends with an author who set me up with my literary agent. When Tina Brown hired me to work on her book The Palace Papers, it was after a mutual contact DM’d me to ask if I was interested.
Of course, my DMs also led to some garden-variety awkwardness, and even some outright harassment. Other conversations happened in gray areas. When I tweeted a thread about otters, a journalist I’d never met DM’d me and then sent a plush otter toy to the Daily Beast office. He was perfectly nice, but I didn’t think I was interested in whatever that otter was meant to represent. There was a debate among my friends in the newsroom who’d seen me open the package over whether I owed him a thank-you. After that same thread, there was a Canadian man—not a journalist—who began sending me high-resolution photos of otters in Vancouver. He captured one bloodily fighting an octopus, ripping its claws into flesh as red filled the space around them in the ocean. The DMs really were a battlefield.
I wasn’t really anybody, but I’d developed a following of tens of thousands with my tweets, sometimes about politics, sometimes crime, sometimes cute dog photos. I added a sheen of authenticity through jokes and my sometimes-scheduled idyllic photos, of animals, of the outdoors, occasionally of my face. I received effusive private messages and emails from nice, often well-meaning men who tried their level best not to seem too interested. And yes, sometimes a friendly conversation led to one of the staples of being a woman online: unsolicited dick pics. In other cases, it instead led to genuine feelings—and then heartbreak.
One man convinced me to meet him after a prolonged Twitter-and-then-Instagram-and-then-texting relationship. I didn’t actually respond to the offer of a real-world date until he offered to buy me mozzarella sticks. (What can I say? Cheese is powerful.) We had a situationship for about five months, and then it faded. He was a kind and good man, but it’s a strange thing to get to know a human beneath a rose-colored, curated online persona.
My first Twitter heartbreak was years earlier, in my mid-20s, when vaguely clever public banter between myself and a Washington, D.C.–based journalist turned into DMs. Soon, we were glued to our phones basically 24/7, narrating our days to each other and developing inside jokes.
At night, we were talking on the phone while watching You’ve Got Mail, admitting to crushes on each other, and learning each other’s life stories.
“I just see you the way you are,” he DM’d me. “A very good, nice, talented person whose one flaw is buying coasters on Amazon when you could just use floppy discs.” There was more: He “wanted to hold” me, even though he didn’t know what I looked like in person. Just whatever pictures of myself I’d felt confident enough to put online. And there was a wrinkle: He had a girlfriend. She was living abroad for six months, he said; he was conflicted about his feelings for me, but he “desperately” needed to meet me.
He took a bus to New York to come to my birthday party as a “friend.” He bought me a pen “for the book you’re going to write some day” and a hiking guide to Ireland for a trip he’d said we should take together. We kissed and exchanged “I love yous.” He stayed the night.
It was then that I learned he lived with the girlfriend—but by that revelation, I had a Nora Ephron movie–stoked conviction that maybe this was one of those love stories that started with deception but ended with a relationship that was thoughtful and passionate and romantic. He just seemed so genuine. Youth and the internet can do that.
In the morning, he went home. I didn’t hear from him for three full days. When he finally answered the phone, he told me he had decided to tell his girlfriend what had happened and to try to make things work. He took back the “I love you.” We would not be going to Ireland.
I was devastated and embarrassed. Of course, I eventually got over it.
In hindsight, I recognize our interactions as existing in a kind of parasocial glimmer. He really did think he knew me, and I really believed it. But he was seeing only the work I was most proud of, the moments I wanted to share with the world, the jokes I thought were funny. What I thought I loved was actually this man’s internet persona: a curated amalgam of earnestness and wit and film references and silly humor. It took time to realize that I had confused the fact that we both liked Tom Hanks in That Thing You Do! or were fans of The Office with what it means to truly know another person.
We haven’t spoken in years. I think he’s married now, to someone new—it is impossible to fully escape the big life updates of someone in your orbit on social media, especially if they’re successful. But it stopped being my business a very long time ago.
Twitter was (and, as of press time, still is) a strange place to connect with other people. For all the professional opportunities it has afforded me and the wonderfully real friendships it has enabled, it can also make you forget who you know and whom you don’t; when it’s your place to argue and when to let other people just be.
And while DM slides sometimes lead to romance—even marriages—there’s a reason I stopped using Twitter, or Instagram for that matter, as a surrogate for a dating app, even before Musk took over. Because it’s too easy to project a fantasy of your hopes and dreams onto a couple of curated jokes and a tiny, round avatar. It’s much harder to realize that what’s behind those things is an entire person with thoughts and opinions they’ve never shared. Even secrets. And it’s very difficult to bridge the gap between what you think you know about someone and who they truly are.