“It’s not real: it’s Twitter”

Yet another tempest in tweetcup exploded on Twitter yesterday after conservative columnist Michelle Malkin called out brain-dead fake-thug rapper “The Game” for his offensive album cover. The artwork depicts Jesus as a black gangsta type, mixing imagery of the Sacred Heart with typical thug-life iconography. It was offensive, and calculated to be so. It’s pure outrage-bait designed to generate lots of free publicity, and Malkin took the bait.

Part of this is the outrage industry that feeds itself: one side creating outrage, the other responding, all of it spiraling out of control and both sides raising their profiles (and their hit/follower counts) in the process. I have no special gripe with Malkin. She tends to be a bomb-thrower, and I don’t think that serves the cause all that well, but to each her own. Sometimes I agree with her, sometimes I don’t.

In the case of the blasphemous rapper, I can understand a Christian being outraged and responding, but someone as media savvy as Malkin (who founded two internet empires: Hot Air and Twitchy) had to know her reaction would only boost this loser’s profile. I was happy in my ignorance that a creep like The Game even existed, much less that he has a million lobotomized followers on Twitter, happily smoking ganja and slappin’ hoes. By the time this is all over, Malkin will only have succeeded in getting The Game another million followers. And she’ll benefit from it as well. That’s the way this particular game works.

“The Game” responded with a series of sub-literate attack on Malkin, and then his fans got into the act with a stream of tweets directed at Malkin, each attempting to outdo the others with vile, violent, racist comments. Of course, all of them thought Malkin was being racist, because that’s the default response when anyone criticizes a designated minority. (You know the old joke: What’s the definition of a racist? Someone who’s winning an argument with a liberal.) The absurd part was that many, many tweets called Malkin (born in America, but of Filipino heritage) a racist, and then immediately called her a “gook” or made some other anti-Asian slur.

But the racism was just an hors d’oeuvre. The Gamers were just warming up for a main course of grotesque sexism, sexual insults, and vivid threats of rape. If you wonder if listening to an endless litany of ho-bitch-c#@$ lyrics mingled with violence and drugs and set to a grinding beat creates a numbing effect in the audience, wonder no more. Not a single person said anything that didn’t sound like lyrics from a rap album, and all of it was grotesque. Garbage in, garbage out.

Malkin retweeted all of them, and I started tracing the senders back to their accounts to see what else they had to say. And finally, one Twitiot compressed the whole stupidity of the dark side of the internet into one clueless comment. It’s the title of this post, expressed by some stupid young white dude posing with a 40 in his mom’s basement: “It’s not real: it’s Twitter” (punctuation–obviously–corrected).

We already knew that, of course. This unreality of the internet is the very thing that gives people leave to be complete jackasses, as my many (unpublished and anonymous) commentors prove on a regular basis.

Following right after the storm of blind hate unleashed on the pope, however, it gives a sense of the uniquely weird dynamic of Twitter, which offers a real possibility of direct communication with the powerful and the famous. Someone with a million followers and a best-selling album (or, say, the Vicar of Christ) can just happen to see, retweet, or reply to a comment from someone with 14 followers, and all of a sudden the Nobody feels like Somebody. They have their brush with fame.

Yet it remains a fundamentally unreal brush. It’s ephemeral. It passes away quickly, but the illusion that some major celebrity knows Joe Shmo remains. Thus, Joe does whatever he can to get attention: the more outrageous the better. It doesn’t really matter, right? After all, it’s just a few letters on a screen. It’s not real. And when you write a fantasy about using a sharp object to anally rape a middle-aged mom of two from Colorado Springs, it ain’t no big thang, right? It jess Twitta!

But communication has to be grounded in truth. Words don’t have meaning other than what time and culture assigns to them. Words aren’t the things they signify. The word “chair” isn’t a chair. It’s a symbol for the idea of a thing with legs that you sit on. If the words we use don’t signify something, then words themselves lose meaning, and communication becomes impossible. When communication breaks down, so does society. They are co-dependent.

This is the great danger of the internet and modern communication technology: the severing of words from their context and meaning. You may indeed have a fantasy about raping someone you don’t know because they disapprove of the artwork on the album cover of someone you listen to. If that’s the case, you’re a sick bastard and need to get some help, but the rest of us can probably ignore you.

Once you cast that fantasy into 140 characters or less and unleash it into the world, you cease to be a sick bastard and become a terrorist, a criminal (yes, threats are illegal), and a danger to society. If you’re so disconnected from reality that you can’t distinguish between a thought passing through your mind, and the act of broadcasting that thought to the world and your intended victim, you’re no longer functioning as a member of a civil society.

We project our personalities into this web of communication that is the internet, and it’s providing all kinds of opportunities to connect and bond and exchange. We can more easily be who we are, or we can create a new persona and be someone else. We can boldly claim a corner of the net under our own name, or wrap ourselves in anonymity to say anything free of consequences.

But if it’s going to work at all, it has to be grounded in the same rules that make civilization possible. There is no “Twitter reality” that’s separate from reality. It’s all reality. Technology has one constant in all its manifestations: a tendency to dehumanize. From the cotton gin to Facebook, it all tends to reduce the human experience, setting us back at one remove from our thoughts, our labor, and our fellow man. When that technology is the glue binding civilization–as is all communication technology–the dangers to a stable society become very real.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.