Twitter Is Real Life
...or if it's not, then maybe the Iowa State Fair was just a delicious hallucination.
Hello my dear newsletter readers! Welcome to my latest attempt to Do A Newsletter.
You will note that I have changed the overall newsletter title. This is my attempt to frame [waves arms] this all as what always wants to pour out of me anyway: what it’s like to be a journalist.
I mean, look: I’ve been doing this as a career for a little over a decade now, and I love my job [hi bosses!], and I still pinch myself that I now trade story ideas and reporting tips with people I admired from afar for so long. So…that’s one reason to write. But not only that...a huge, huge number of people distrust journalists and our profession. I figure, I will come out here and talk about how I do my job, how I feel about my work, and do my tiny tiny part of demystifying all this.
Anyhow. This week’s banger -- and probably the next volume as well -- is all about Twitter. Let’s go.
The Pew Research Center put out a study this week showing the statistical contours of the Twitter populace. The finding that grabbed the most attention: a minority of Twitter users are responsible for the overwhelming majority of tweets.
If you stop and think about it, this isn’t wildly unusual...this is probably the general statistical shape of most pastimes you can think of -- I would venture to guess that something like 1% of Americans are playing 95% of the Dungeons & Dragons, for example, or that 10% of people are doing 75% of the gardening.1 And so on.
And yet. This study caused my Twitter timeline -- and perhaps yours -- to fill up with pretty much this tweet...on repeat:
John Gramlich @johngramlichThe sentiments you see expressed on Twitter come from a very small slice of the population, as a new @pewresearch study again makes clear. Only 23% of US adults use Twitter in the first place, and only 25% of *those* adults account for 97% of the tweets. https://t.co/dEfQbBxai5 https://t.co/05vsiIp38K
This is not to pick on this Alex Van Ness person, who is just one of bajillions who came up when I searched Twitter for the phrase “Twitter is not real life” after this study published.2
And look: people I love and respect tweeted similar sentiments. And I do not want to insult or subtweet them. Everyone gets their own opinion. Rather, I’m going to voice my opinion here:
Twitter is very much real life.
Well, as “real” as any other arena where people gather and talk.
Let me walk you through my logic here.
FIRST: Giving the Not-Real-Lifers their due: If I’m understanding correctly, the general point of “Twitter is not real life” is that Twitter — and your Twitter feed in particular — is not representative of the broader population...that if you are taking your cues for what The American Public cares about from Twitter, you are woefully mistaken.
Which, fair. Twitter is biased toward the loud and opinionated. And loud and opinionated people also are often ideologically unrepresentative of the broader population.
But I remain unmoved. To my points:
1) Twitter is “realer” than even I thought it was.
The other night as we were going to bed, I was telling my gent about this Pew data that flew past me on Twitter, saying that something like 4% of tweeters account for 95% of tweets.3
We chatted about it -- during which I told him that already I was annoyed at the “twitter is not real life” takes -- and then we pulled it up and saw that, no, twenty-five percent of tweeters account for those tweets, and that, furthermore, TWENTY-THREE PERCENT OF U.S. ADULTS are on Twitter. The Pew guy up there puts it in his tweet as “only 23%” of U.S. adults are on Twitter, but...then again, nearly a quarter of U.S. adults are sharing their opinions at once! In one place!
So. 25% of 23% of all 258 million U.S. adults equals…
Just shy of 15 million.
FIFTEEN MILLION, people.
As the gent put it, “Twitter is realer than I thought.”
Which is exactly it.
2) What is real life, then?
I made this point on Twitter this week4, but to restate: if the idea is that Twitter is unrepresentative of the population, then should I avoid any unrepresentative arena with my reporting? In that case, nowhere is “real life”!
I try to think back to anywhere I reported over the last few years. Campaign events tend to be stacked with high-information, politically hyper-involved people. College campuses are full of young, educated (duh), pretty liberal people. Churches are full of Christians. Diners are full of…people who go to diners. The Iowa State Fair is full of people who can eyeball the weight of a market barrow.5
None of these are representative samples of the population. And yet, when I (and every other journalist on the planet) do a story based entirely upon people at the Iowa State Fair, I don’t get choruses of responses that the IOWA STATE FAIR IS NOT REAL LIFE.
In fact, at events like the Iowa State Fair, I personally have shortcuts I use to pick out people to talk to/quote. Here’s one: the people most excited to talk to you — the ones who see you with a mic, stride up, and declare, “hey I got something to say…” — are probably the least worth quoting. And that’s because those people often have the most extreme opinions OR rattle off the same talking points as the candidate.
This doesn’t mean I’m writing any stories anytime soon that are solely about the opinions of Americans on Twitter.6 Instead, it means…the tools we use in real life to take a deep breath and contextualize what people are telling us? We sure can use them on Twitter too! Transferable skills hell yes!
3) Nice straw man you’ve got there.
Saying “Twitter is not real life” is to wag your finger at some imaginary person who might open Twitter during a random Twitter-joke-cycle and sincerely wonder why so many people are so scared of feral hogs.
Who exactly believes that Twitter is real life? And/or who is treating it as such?
Or, more to the point, show me the journalist treating Twitter as their primary way of figuring out what Americans care about, and I’ll show you a journalist who…er…how to put this kindly…could be doing their job better.
As a side note … please, God, let Twitter not be real life. If it were, from my understanding, the world would be 10% reply guys, 5% genuinely funny Weird Twitter people, and 85% other journalists whose sole goal, near as I can tell, is to show me all the great ideas I’m not having, books I’m not writing, and awards I’m not getting.7
4) What are you dismissing?
I may be wrong here, but fairly often when I have heard “Twitter is not real life,” it has had a particular ideological valence to it...the meaning tending to be, “when you see a lot of left-leaning opinions on your Twitter feed, take them with a whole damn shaker of salt.”8
And look: it’s very much true that Democrats on social media do tend to be further-left than your standard Dem, as evidenced in a 2019 New York Times piece. (I would imagine the same is true of Republicans.)
And yet...I don’t know that that means Twitter isn’t “real life.”
Lest you think this sounds like splitting hairs, hear me out. The opinions on Twitter, even the more-extreme ones, when taken up by enough people, can very much affect offline politics.
I think it’s no stretch to say that lefty ideas like the Green New Deal and universal basic income gained more traction because of Twitter.
“HAHA you proved my point,” you say, whoever you are. “Those things have never come close to passing!”
True. And yet, I would argue that online activism about climate, in the form of advocating for the Green New Deal and myriad other policies, likely pulled Democrats toward greater action on climate change.
Moreover, I have yet to hear anyone declare that Facebook is not real life. And yet...Facebook is where many, many right-leaning (and often that lean is damn near horizontal) form their opinions and congregate with each other.
It’s possible, then -- and I’m just theorizing here -- that there’s a tendency to dismiss lefty-er social media rhetoric as pie-in-the-sky-non-”real” idealism, in somewhat the same way that cities and nonwhite suburbs/rural areas have in past political rhetoric often been cast as not-being-”real”-America.
And/or...it’s also possible that the “TWITTER IS NOT REAL-LIFE”rs are aiming specifically at journalists, saying roughly: “You’re hanging out on Twitter a lot and getting a skewed view of people.”
But this again brings me back to the campaign-event example. We spend a heck of a lot of time at events and town halls — full, again, of higher-information voters.
If you want me to report on “real life,” gimme a representative sample and a phone list and let me call all those people and then adjust my results holy shit I just invented polling.
5a) “Twitter is not your assignment editor.” OK, fair.
5b) GROSS TRUTH: When Twitter is your assignment editor, the traffic can be bananas.
OK, this all is kind of an aside, but a relevant one.
A close cousin to “Twitter is not real life” is the journalistic maxim “Twitter is not your assignment editor.”
I’m thinking back to that time in 2015 that I saw a bunch of people tweeting about Bernie Sanders’ “rape fantasy essay.”
“I’m sorry…what?” I said, in unison with roughly 20 billion other politics watchers.
And then I read it and wrote an explainer...something to contextualize the whole kerfuffle.
This piece got insane traffic. I remember I got congratulated on it. And I think that was deserved: It was a fine piece that explained what was up without making it a bigger deal than it needed to be. And it got eyeballs! Hooray!
But let’s be clear: Twitter essentially assigned that piece to me, and I should add that as a result, it probably did way better numbers, as it got passed around by both Twitter’s Bernie stans and Twitter’s Bernie-haters.
Sure, that means the piece was at least somewhat useful to a bunch of people on the internet. Does this mean that the piece was, morally, the absolute best use of my time at that moment? No! It was probably not super useful to the overwhelming majority of the American public. This piece was probably most interesting to the people on Twitter.
But you bet your ass that I got congratulated on my high click count, and that I felt happy about it.
My point is that even if you’re a “not-real-life”-er, you can easily get rewarded by occasionally treating it that way.
6) Social media is simply a huge part of “real life” now.
Look at literally any of the stellar reporting people have done on Facebook in the last couple of months.
Social media affects real life.
And this happens in both the aggregate — by influencing elections — and on the individual level.
Consider that this whole “Twitter is not real life” firehose spewed forth during a week when members of Congress censured a fellow member for posting a video of himself committing violence against another member.
No, it isn’t directly about Twitter acting as a “filter bubble”…but isn’t it? Paul Gosar got that clip from someone in his bubble.
To use a tamer example, I recall the time I was at an outdoor summer evening orchestra concert and my phone buzzed. It was a text message from an unknown number. It was a man who identified himself as Such-and-Such, whose name I recognized as one of my more persistent Twitter reply guys. (Weirdly, however he got my number, he decided to use it to text me several videos of his dog playing in what appeared to be a dog park.)
My evening went from bucolic to am-I-in-a-slasher-movie. And my point is that, had you told me Twitter was not real life in this moment, I might have punched you in the groin.9
Maybe I’m not being generous enough to the people making this argument...they’re really in some ways saying, “Hey. Get out into the world more and report.” Fair enough! And I have had that job before where Twitter WAS one of the main assignment editors, and where we didn’t get out into the world at all. And it was indeed Hell.10 Indeed, traveling is my favorite damn part of my current job.
But again...as a journalist, to have 15 million people at my fingertips, to search their opinions -- skewed though they may be -- and comb through conversations on any given topic? I’ll take that as a reporting tool any day of the week.
(As a final note, I only realized as I was in the final stages of this essay that Mr. Charlie Effing Warzel, internet writer extraordinaire, has written his own Twitter Is Real Life take, and you should go read his, too. And then tell him that this exists so he’ll tweet it and I’ll get those sweet sweet (not-real, haha) clicks.)
Here is a GIF to break things up before I drop in some links. It is of a man dancing with an orbital sander.
I haven’t put out any stories proper in a couple of weeks because the great folks at NPR let me guest-host Weekend Edition Sunday (eeeeee!). But here is a story I did just before that stint on how abortion activists are talking more (and more loudly) about their abortions than they used to.
And speaking of Weekend Edition Sunday, here’s an interview I did with the author of a novel called Chouette. It’s about a woman who gives birth to an owl. It is strange and beautiful and heartbreaking and occasionally funny and very worth your time…I imagine especially if you’re a parent. (You can buy it here!)
Also, an NPR producer and I talked to small kids as they got vaccinated, and the results were predictably excellent and joyful. Listen, and stay for the little guy who blows a raspberry into the mic.
Other people’s stuff:
Latest podcast recs: Heavyweight, We Can Do Hard Things (I am a middle-age-approaching woman who is very into self-help. I refuse to apologize.), I Hate It But I Love It.
Life recs: doing camel pose and screaming when you need to wake up midday.
Book recs: Chouette, The Engagement by Sasha Issenberg (NPR Politics Pod December book club pick READ IT NOW), Ruth Ware mystery novels, Parable of the Sower (I’m coming to it late I know but whoaaaaa)
Newsletter recs: She’s a Beast — a newsletter from a “swole woman” herself about getting swole. Am I a super-heavy lifter? No! Not yet! But damn if this isn’t inspiration, not to mention a powerful-ass antidote to diet culture.
My mom is responsible for 20% on her own, though.
TRY IT! IT’S FUN! Haha wheeeeeeeeeeee this is what I do in my spare time!
Haha wheeeeeee and talking about Pew reports is apparently my pillow talk! My life is a madcap romp!
But since that’s not Real, let me make it again here hahaaaa ughghghghgh [vomits, dies].
When in doubt, guess somewhere around 250 pounds. You’re welcome.
This is in part because I can’t verify that a theoretical Twitter user named something like @farbot69 is indeed a real person, and in part because I can’t say names like “fartbot69” on the air without laughing.
My gent once told me that the airbrushed-life-perfect-body depression that Instagram puts everyone else into is analogous to the airbrushed-resume-perfect-career depression that Twitter puts me into. This is 1000% correct.
I’m using gentle words here. One of the meaner “Twitter is not real life” tweets I saw this week included some real doozies of phrases, like “soyboy cuck.” Fun times.
And to be clear, I am fully aware that this is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things -- I blocked the dude and went on living my life, whereas I have colleagues who have been full-on doxxed.
Have you ever had Twitter nightmares? And, relatedly, Slack nightmares? Reader, I have. To this day, I can’t allow my Slack to make that shhhhhhh-click-click-click noise.