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What “The Worst Tweet” tells us about internet culture

The “Worst Tweet Ever” was a little underwhelming, if you think about it.

The “Worst Tweet,” for all of the three people on the Internet who haven’t heard about it, is what a woman who Tweets as @femme_esq supposedly wrote, a few days ago. In response to a news story about a Florida toddler getting eaten by an alligator, she Tweeted that she was “not even sad.” Since then, the Tweet has gone viral, screengrabs have been passed around the Internet like candy, and — most relevantly — the woman who wrote it has had her life ruined for sport.

I’m not going to spend much time talking about whether or not I think the Tweet was good. @femme_esq has apologized for it, so I don’t have to. And since people are posting her home address online in an attempt to punish her for writing it, I think it’s safe to say it was objectively not her best Tweet ever. The typical goal of Tweeting is not to be afraid or unsafe in your own home.

Plenty has been written, and quite capably, about why it was not actually the “worst Tweet” — namely, that people type profoundly racist, sexist, homophobic, threatening things on Twitter every day. The first thing I saw, looking at my phone this morning, was someone calling me a murderer. Yet somehow, with all the bad Tweets out there, the only time we ever find it in ourselves to care is when the “bad Tweeter” happens to be a mouthy woman.

We’ve seen “worst Tweets” before. There was the woman who dressed as a Boston Marathon bombing victim for Halloween. (She got bomb threats at her house.) There was the incident in which 4Chan picked an eleven-year-old with a stupid YouTube diary off the Internet and reduced her to sobbing into her webcam. We know how these things go: They blow up, they become a feature in the “Weird News” section, we all get a vicarious hit of outrage or moral superiority, and then, when the news inevitably breaks that the person at the center of all this is getting doxed, or has had to flee their home, or is getting rape threats, we have a sad little nod about how mean the Internet can be.

And then we wait a few months. And we find another woman. And we do it to her again.

This is the first time, however, that I’ve seen it happen to someone I know. Because I do know @femme_esq — have for years — and I therefore see her as an actual, living, breathing person with a history, rather than a piece of viral #content. And that has, perhaps, made me even more impatient than ever about how the “weird Tweet” news story strips away the necessary context of people’s lives.

In context, the actual problem — the thing @femme_esq did wrong — was that she was a queer woman who tweeted a lot of harsh things about men, a white woman who tweeted harshly about racism, and (pertinently) a voter who was enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton. She had gained a following. She had also gained some enemies. Some were mad about “social justice warriors,” others were invested in the byzantine flame-wars that have been going on all throughout the Democratic primary, and for all of them, an angry, poorly worded Tweet about “white men,” especially one that made her look as if she actively hated babies, was the perfect tool to bludgeon her with. She got into an argument. Someone she argued with started screencapping and sharing the Tweets as retaliation. Glenn Greenwald eventually shared them to his 650,000 followers, and then, just like that, she was viral roadkill.

Another notable piece of context: The Tweet was about the shooting of GLBT people in Orlando. She had been grieving, and said she was so overloaded by that grief that she didn’t actually have the emotional capacity to care about one more sad thing. That context — which may make her words more understandable to you, or not — was then removed from the discussion, so that the world only saw a woman seemingly cheering the death of a small child.

And now, here we are.

I have gotten messages from strangers telling me where she lives. What her full name is. Where she works. I have seen her hit from every conceivable angle of the political spectrum. Greenwald picked up the “Worst Tweet,” but so did Right Wing News. (“This nasty woman was blabbering about irrelevant and nonexistent ‘white privilege’ as she said she did not care about the death of Lane Graves.”) One paper posted a public call for e-mails revealing her identity. /pol/, a 4-Chan board popular with neo-Nazis, used her as a chew toy, with “she had a lesbian wedding blog. Her partner is a butch black lesbian” and “can’t wait to hear about this stupid bitch losing her 6 figure job for running her dick sucker” being some of the more printable comments.

She locked her account. It didn’t matter. She deleted her account. It didn’t matter. She apologized for the Tweet. It didn’t matter. It won’t stop.

If compassion ever played a role in this, it left around the time white supremacists were calling @femme_esq a mouthpiece for “the Jews.” God only knows what the family of that child is going through right now; if I had to guess, I’d say their problems of the moment are a lot more severe than a fight on Twitter. Yet they’ve been dragged in, too, having their grief magnified and exposed in the cheapest way possible, by being reduced to a point of principle and a rhetorical weapon in a fight about how to treat people online.

I’m supposed to come in here with a moral. Right? Here’s the part where I give you my analysis. I tell you what’s wrong. I tell you that sexism is very bad, and harassment isn’t a price you should have to pay for existing online. But I can’t. I have said those two things, over and over, for years, and my friends still keep getting doxed. It doesn’t matter what I tell you. Very few facts will change because of what I say. The real fact is, as I type this, I am shaking. I can’t tell what’s making me shake. It’s rage, maybe. Or disgust. Or simple guilt. I can’t get it out of my head. What I could have done differently, to protect my friend.

The sheer fact that this much fury can attend on a woman simply not being sad about something — a fairly normal something, a scary news story — speaks to how deeply we assume that women’s emotions are ours to command. This particular woman was already being targeted. But even if she had simply posted a Tweet about a news story that seemed insensitive: Would any of this have been okay? Simply being human, and female, and public, and having her own emotions, and not anyone else’s: Would finding her in her home and making fun of her for being married to a woman have been all right then? 

Of course it wouldn’t. It wasn’t all right for a woman to get bomb threats and rape threats because she had a bad Halloween costume. It wasn’t all right when grown adults bullied a small child into weeping. It’s not all right, this thing that happens to women online. Maybe they’re not always nice women. And maybe they don’t have to be. Maybe, what those women really ought to be is safe.

Safe to talk with their friends. Safe to be ugly in a moment of need. Safe to speak. Safe to be who they are. Without having to fear for their lives, or file police reports, or sleep in their cars for a night, or delete huge chunks of their lives and social networks, because they had an opinion someone else didn’t like.

Because none of us knows what our own “Worst Tweet” will be. None of us can guarantee we will never be flippant, or insensitive, or simply stick our foot in our mouths. But the fact that we know we could lose our lives for doing so — that we wake up every day with the knowledge that somewhere, some woman is being turned into viral-content roadkill, and if we don’t see her, we might actually be that woman ourselves — that’s the “worst” thing I can think of, about Twitter, or anything, on this day.

Photo: June West/Creative Commons


Sady Doyle

Sady Doyle is the founder of Tiger Beatdown. Her work has appeared at The Atlantic, The American Prospect, Comment Is Free, and all sorts of places, all over the Internet.