An Incomplete List of Things That Twitter Was
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Twitter is maybe not long for this world, as you likely have already heard. Everyone on there is posting eulogies, and forwarding addresses, and increasingly sweaty pleas for someone to tell them that they have a crush on them, which is to say that it’s a normal day on Twitter, except it’s maybe the last one.
I hated Twitter because of course I hated Twitter; if you didn’t hate Twitter, you weren’t there. Hating it was the only way to live in it; that was word for love in its language. I hated Twitter, and I still hate Twitter, and an alarming percentage of everything I love or am proud of derives from the time I wasted on that stupid website, complaining about how the website is garbage.
Twitter has always loved a simile. It was a website populated by users who could not stop trying to more perfectly describe this website we all hated so much. Even now, and maybe especially now, there’s an endless parade of tweets in the “twitter is like if” and “this place is like” “what it’s like on here right now is” form. In that long tradition, here are some final ways I would describe Twitter.
A group of drunk girls in a bathroom. In the decade before this one, in the women’s restroom in the downstairs of a hotel near the river, whose ballroom lofts a disco ball high over the wide dance floor and attracts everyone who has ever thought they were cool or wished they were and everyone who has ever wanted to impress someone or wanted to forget someone, one girl is crying and another girl is offering her a mint, or a lipstick, or a tampon, or a line of coke. Two more girls have gathered in the bathroom, emerging from the stalls, and all of them are telling one another their life stories, and the crying one sniffles and stops crying and starts telling her life story too. Each of them has great wisdom to impart and each of them believes in the wisdom that the others have to offer. They pass around whatever pills and lipsticks they can find in their purses, complimenting one another’s dresses and hair and shoes and bravery, putting their numbers in one another’s phones and greeting anyone else who comes into the bathroom as though this is a party they are hosting in their own home.
In a naive decade, in a city full of construction sites, in glittery, restrictive unflattering dresses that bunch up at the waist and droop at the neckline, in a hotel where the rooms are cheap and the drinks are expensive and the ballroom is full of twee taxidermy and enormous green indoor palms, where obliterated young people throw themselves into the maelstrom of one another, at two in the morning, at the far shore of the future, drunk girls in a bathroom have the key to all mythologies. If twitter was a garbage website, and it was, it was also this, too, the bathroom, and the drunk girls, the lingering smell of coke and vomit, and the purest form of unconditional love.
Times Square. Times Square at noon, Times Square at 5pm, Times Square at midnight, Times Square at 10pm and 3am and Times Square at literally any time, because in Times Square it is always every time of day at once, the numbers shoved hysterically together, which is also how time worked on Twitter. Times Square was and is horrible. It’s overcrowded and it smells like the inside of a public toilet and people walk in groups of five and eight and twenty thousand side by side and make it impossible for those of us who actually live here to navigate one single block to the subway. It’s loud and ugly and full of depressing, expensive restaurants all of which are executed better in any given small-town suburban shopping mall. Cars clog up unsustainable traffic arteries, and ads scream about sneakers and credit cards and soup and television and the ads are disgusting and then every time an older ad is replaced I miss it as though it had been a person I knew, and then I remember that I’m also disgusting.
A naked guy roams around waiting to be photographed, and someone tries to sell you their CD, and someone tries to sell you weed, and someone tries to sell you tickets to a comedy show. There are so many cops everywhere. An eruption of frat boys or Bachelorette-weekenders stumbles out of an Irish pub, euphorically drunk at four in the afternoon. The subways belch wet steam up through the grates in the pavement. On every street corner, someone proclaims the end of the world and means it, their staring eyes certain, holding desperate signs aloft with chapter and verse from Revelations, proclaiming the apocalypse to gawking cameras and impatient commuters.
It’s the worst place any place could possibly be. It’s intolerable to be there for more than five minutes. But none of this has ever meant it doesn’t feel like the center of the world. To arrive here, feet and bones and faces and the glitter in the sidewalk and the trash collecting on it and the rats eating the trash, is to stand in the aortic chamber of life itself, holding a stack of pizza boxes while the room around you burns, at the absolute beating heart of whatever garbage heap human existence might be.
What people who didn’t have friends in middle school think having friends in middle school was like.
A Denny’s at 2am in a town with a vibrant (derogatory) local theater scene.
The trailer for noted upcoming Large Movie Babylon. Every time the Babylon trailer comes on I feel like I am deeply, powerfully, joyfully stupid, and like I have done a medium-size country’s annual GDP’s worth of cocaine. I feel like I want to use the word “horny” really sincerely, like really just so sincerely, and I feel like I need to leave the theater right now so I can go to the nearest available overpriced clothing store and buy a really horny dress. At the same time, I feel like I cannot and will not ever be able leave this theater, and I will always be watching this trailer, and have always been watching this trailer, and I feel like oh my god can everyone please please just be quiet for one minute please. Everyone is screaming at each other and everyone is yelling about magic and origin stories and luck and privilege. A hot girl wants me to buy something. A man everyone knows is a monster but whose professional career has somehow been in no way impacted by that recently-ubiquitous knowledge is there and seems to be doing great, and so is an elderly female entertainment icon over whom everyone is making just slightly too big of a deal. Everything is going so FAST, and everything is so LOUD, and everyone is WORRIED and everyone is SEXY and everyone is SPITEFUL. The only punctuation that exists is the exclamation point; it has just now become illegal to use other punctuation. There are too many people in every single frame and every single one of them is famous. Nobody’s face is correctly visible and no one’s relationship to anyone else makes any sense. There are a lot of threats and a lot of compliments and somebody wants me to look at a snake even though I really don’t want to look at a snake. This movie looks so bad, it looks just absolutely terrible, like just so expansively, spitefully, deeply stupid, and I cannot wait for it, and Twitter is like what if the only way to make new friends or promote your work was to go and stand inside of the trailer for Babylon while it plays on an endless loop around you.
The Titanic but everybody wants to talk about Joan Didion.
The Titanic but everybody wants to tell you why they don’t count as rich.
Honestly it’s not like the Titanic at all, I just feel sure in my soul that even in their last moments everybody left each other alone on there way more.
The JFK assassination episode of Mad Men. In one long single shot near the beginning of the episode, a character arrives late to his job and finds the office in disarray, desks empty and scattered with suddenly-abandoned papers, and every phone ringing unanswered. Down the hallway at the end of the room, where a TV is blaring just out of sight, we can make out a rising chatter of worried voices, and someone starting to cry. It is— we suddenly remember— a November morning in 1963. The bustling office has collapsed into one anxious body, huddled together around a TV, ignoring the ringing phones, to share in a collective crisis.
The longest-form Jenny Holzer installation ever.
Listening to two people have an argument on the street directly underneath your window. At three in the morning, when the rest of the city has gone implausibly silent, two people, maybe taking the dog for a walk, or maybe coming home from a bar, have chosen this moment to air all of their oldest and most urgent grievances, to demand answers and insist on blame. Or maybe that’s what they’re doing. It’s hard to tell, because you can’t quite discern the entire conversation, which started before this city block and will end long after it. You keep edging closer and closer to the window, trying to string together you promised and that wasn’t it and why won’t you talk about it and come back here and that was my car you bastard and Mitch, she was always a lesbian into a beginning, middle, and end. Eventually the voices get further away until you can’t hear them at all and then you fall back asleep.
Sitting at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving when you are supposed to be sitting at the adults’ table.
Sitting at the adults’ table at Thanksgiving when honestly you should still be sitting at the kids’ table.
Going into the downstairs bathroom at the home of a relative you actually don’t know very well on Thanksgiving and hiding out there while everybody argues. In the next room, where too many family members at once were attempting to have just one nominally pleasant meal together, somebody has said the wrong thing, or the person who was waiting for a fight has found the narrowest sliver of an opening and started one. Someone has taken something or several things much too personally, and then any number of other people have also joined in in taking everything much too personally. People have started raising their voices and somebody has stood up and braced their hands on the table as though they want everyone to think that they are going to storm out of the room but everybody knows they aren’t going to storm out of the room. Outside, some of your cousins and somebody’s brother’s husband were smoking weed in the cold and hastily came back in to witness the fight and they can’t stop themselves from giggling whenever anyone yells. People start bringing up old grudges and other people start trying to stop them and if somebody has brought a baby, the baby starts crying and half the table gets angry at the other half for making the baby cry.
Under the noise, you’ve snuck away to the nearest bathroom and you’re sitting on the toilet and thinking about whether it’s really worth it to congregate in these rooms, to try to knit up these enormous groups of related and yet so deeply unrelated people into some kind of unit. The voices rise and fall in imitation of a crisis. You are looking at monogrammed hand towels and fake seashells and cursive-font decorative placards and trying to game out how long you can stay in here before somebody notices. You try to imagine that these are people you don’t know instead of ones whose DNA you carry around inside of your skin, and you wonder if this would be funny if you didn’t know these people, if you owed them nothing, if the room where everyone was yelling was only a TV show and not your family, who one day you will take to the hospital, and grieve with, and bury, and mourn.
The fever dream of a high school freshman who has the flu but has come to school anyway and has fallen asleep in the middle of class.
The depiction of Hell in noted prestige television series Adventure Time.
Trying to leave a party where the vibe has soured, but being too high to leave the party and being stuck in a corner of a party maybe forever while a whole bunch of men you don’t like very much argue about Marx and gas prices.
The mythical city of Babel. Or any one story about the mythical city of Babel, or any story about a great lost city with a single language. The actual story of Babel is an origin story, a civilization’s creation myth, the loss and fracture of a dream that leads to a rebuilding that leads to the known world. Lots of cultures have some kind of myth like this, but what has always struck me about this one in particular is the open-mouthed longing its premise instantly compels: The whole world, speaking the same language. All at once the unknown made known, the twisting roads made navigable, and every stranger made into a friend.
This dream is the same one that every lonely misfit growing up without friends or supportive family clings to when they survive their childhood by imagining that one day they will move to the city—whatever specific city that constitutes—and everything will be better, and everyone there will understand. That city is always a fiction, and always an invention, even when the kid really does move to the city and everyone there really does understand. Every place we love is a fiction, and so is every story we come up with about why we love it, or why we’re there, or what the city made possible, and what it gave us.
An old friend of mine was once asked how she knew a mutual friend and, awkwardly avoiding the real answer, which was that they used to have sex, said “we know each other from the city.” Of course, how they really knew each other, before the sex, was from social media. But either way “we know each other from the city” seems all too accurate a way to say it.
Twitter was the city and we all knew each other from the city. All of us on here lived for a while in the city of Babel, miraculously speaking one another’s language, the previous barriers that had kept us from connection removed, building marketplaces and town squares, and dark underground bars and fancy restaurants, building palaces and gardens and amphitheaters and houses and bedrooms and lecture halls and printing presses and offices. We all lived here in the city together, running into old friends and making friends with strangers on the walk to the grocery store and the train to work, eavesdropping on heartbreaks, and getting into arguments, and dodging the wild-eyed preachers screaming about the end of the world.
Before I got on Twitter, I had always felt like I somehow never learned the language by which people were able to talk to one another, and make friends, and be in social spaces together, and know one another. And then, for a few years when the whole world was text, I suddenly had those skills, and I have to tell you, for a little while it really, truly felt like I would never be lonely again. I know that’s stupid. Of course it is. Anything anyone believes in with their whole heart is stupid; the drunk girls in the bathroom don’t actually have the key to all mythologies. But Twitter allowed me to enter the world, because it rendered the world into text, and in that form I had an all-at-once fluency in things that had been previously out of reach. It was a city and I made a home in it, and now that city is gone.
Perhaps the myth of Babel offers a simpler truth: Cities live for a while and then they die. The spaces we inhabit blossom and decay, much like our own bodies that we place within them. We build something and it lasts until it doesn’t; we live our lives somewhere and no part of our experience exists beyond its borders, and then one day it’s gone, and persists only in our fractured, once-shared memories. Cities rise and fall; they are as easy to lose as any other type of love. We love things, and then something else happens. We live somewhere, and then no one lives there. The sand picks up the ruins and disfigures them, and the traces left behind look like not so much a record as a joke, sweeping away whatever seemed most permanent. Again and again we get the idea of permanence wrong: We think it means whatever matters most, when in fact it means nothing of the kind. But to engage against all our better instincts in that belief is what it is to love. These spaces were always temporary and always doomed; we behaved in them as though they would last not because we had any good reason to believe they would, but because we loved them, and because love became possible within them.
If Twitter was ever utopian or even good or pleasant for any of its users, it certainly isn’t now, and likely wasn’t ever any of those things. I don’t mean to imply that it is, or even that it once was. I mean that I once thought it was, which is the difference between love and reality. Once I lived in a city, and in that city everyone could miraculously talk to one another, and then we couldn’t, or maybe had to admit that we never had been able to, and then one day the city was gone.
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