There was a time, not so long ago, when Neil deGrasse Tyson was univerally beloved as an icon of science and rationality. He made the rebooted Cosmos an unlikely hit, and his take-downs of scientific ignorance on Twitter were staples of virtually everyone’s feed. Then something changed. His Twitter feed became a series of exercises in #WellActually-ism, as he took it upon himself to take down views that no one held. #WellActually, New Years Day has no astrological significance — take that, person who… held that view, if you exist. #WellActually, the Earth doesn’t leap at all during Leap Year — apparently this is supposed to be a common misconception, rather than an idea that had literally never occurred to anyone. And now, the very worst depths of #WellActually: you don’t oppose Trump, you oppose his supporters — see, because you don’t want them to vote for… um, well, Trump. Zing!
This sad tale should be a warning to every academic who is tempted by the siren-song of Twitter. There’s something about the drive to constantly craft witty, counter-intuitive aperçus that is obviously corrosive to the mind. Inevitably one reaches the level of self-parody. Thankfully for Tyson, his self-parodic version is merely smug and too-clever-by-half. There are worse “worst selves” out there, such as the racist demagogue that Dawkins’ self-parody version turned out to be.
In retrospect, I can admit that I was reaching that level with the tweets that got me in trouble last year — too quick to opine, too cynically “knowing,” too self-indulgently sarcastic, too entitled in my assumption that everyone was somehow “in on the joke.” In retrospect, it may have been an unintentional act of mercy for the right-wing hordes to drive me away from Twitter, at least as a frequent improvisational tweet-crafter (I do like to retweet funny things and respond to friends’ tweets now and again).
The sad part is that I still feel a certain pride in my Twitter virtuosity. I look at Tyson’s decline and think: I could do better than that. But the end result would be the same — compulsively returning to the same tired formulas, gradually alienating more and more people. When my paranoia about fresh waves of harrassment drives me to search for my own name, it’s clear that there are people who are just vaguely annoyed at me, who use me as a byword for smugness or arrogance. It’s yet another way in which being good at Twitter produces only bad results. The better you are at crafting tweets, the more you get retweeted and the more people get sick of you. The more “exposure” you get, the more exposed you are to harrassment.
Twitter eats through the talent and reputation of its most dedicated users. Even more than Facebook, I think, it’s a “user” — and so it makes sense that the quintessential Twitter user turns out to be none other than Donald Trump, whose apparently unlimited supply of contempt and resentment renders him immune to the platform’s corrosive effects, which only make him even stronger. He thrives on the “hate retweet,” the “get a load of this guy.” Trump is the truth of Twitter.