As shown on Moskowitz’s Twitter.
Photo: Courtesy of PE Moskowitz
When I was a kid growing up in down Manhattan, my dad always said to us, “The parking gods are with us.” Surrounding the blocks around our apartment after he had a job, he never managed to find a place – a skill he passed on to me. A friend once described my ability to park in parallel in New York City as “sex,” and I agree: sex is sex, like being able to handle an electric vehicle. That is why, a few weeks ago, when I managed to get my car into the smallest place I had ever tried, I felt a sense of pride. So do I. posted a photo of my car parked on Twitter, where I have over 25,000 followers, with the obviously hyperbolic title “not to brag, but I deserve a Nobel Prize for this”. Then I hung up the phone.
Within hours, the post had amassed dozens of tweets on Twitter. One person told me I was an “objectively bad person” for my work in the parking lot. I thought it was funny. So I took the screenshot of it and posted him with another obviously hyperbolic title: “I’m getting canceled because I’m good at parallel parking.” That tweet, madly, now has 153,100 likes and more than 4,800 retweets. According to Twitter analysis, about 10 million people have seen it, and about 4,000 of them decided to respond. Some call me an evil human being or an ability; others told me they would close my car or open my tires. Some threatened to fight me. Some just said I was lying — one person created a SAT-style geometry diagram to prove, based on the dimensions and angles shown in the pictures, that my parking job was mathematically impossible.
U mahnita. In the decade I’ve been on Twitter, I’ve experienced the anger of the anonymous internet crowd several times: once when I tweeted that ADHD (which I was diagnosed with) was a symptom of late capitalism, and another time when I wrote on Twitter that the transition gender should be like converting to Judaism, where you have to be approved by an authority (I am trans and Jewish and I also joked). Both of these posts prompted retweets calling me horrible names and DM containing death threats, but the anger, if not justified in its magnitude, was at least legible: I had posted a controversial opinion and people were reacting to it. In the case of my parallel parking job, however, I was confused. How can such a banal tweet provoke such anger? So I asked some friends who are very online and were also fascinated by the response to my tweets to help decipher what was going on.
“The whole pretext why they were allowed to come to you was so non-existent,” said writer Charlotte Shane. “That’s why I was so happy with it, even though I was also terrified.”
A clear explanation for the incident, Shane said, is that social media sites have been created to incite anger. “She settled on our resources for a reason,” she said. “Twitter was like, ‘You’re going to waste your whole weekend posting trash to someone you’ve never met. “What Twitter wants is for all of us to watch a tweet that makes us so crazy that we will spend all day tweeting about it. This is the dream scenario for the company.”
Before the internet, if someone posted a flyer in a hut advertising a book club to discuss a book you did not want to read, it is very likely that you simply did not attend. What would be the point? But today, with the most scandalous or inflammatory posts flowing to the top of our sources even if we have no interest in them, we are all in each other’s book clubs – forced to see the things we do not like and intervene in algorithmically with them.
There is an academic name for this that is attributed to technology researcher danah boyd: context collapse, in which different audiences who may not want to be in the same place together IRLs are forced by social media algorithms to share space virtual. And as tech writer Charlie Warzel has pointed out, the more this happens, the more angry and cynical people seem to become. Our internet corners continue to be infiltrated by people we do not know, ideas we do not like; as a defense mechanism, we go back. One thousand book clubs compete for space in the worst convention center in the world.
Context collapse may explain the degree of anger that my parking job provoked, but it did not explain the anger itself. So I contacted about 20 people who had come for me to learn more.
Zac, a 23-year-old in Pennsylvania with 224 followers who suggested I should be in jail for my work in the parking lot, told me he was being intentionally hyperbolic and the only target audience were his friends. “[It] it would not be so ridiculous to say, “Man, that’s impressive, but I’m worried about other cars!” “Zac sent me a message. ‘To say someone should go to jail for a job in the park is clearly absurd and something from which my followers got a kick out.”
Zac also has a degree in linguistics, so he spoiled it further. “The purpose of my tweet was not to try and scold. It was for fun,” he said. “And that’s why I think a lot of communication disruptions happen on the Internet. The only function of language on Twitter is different (communication versus entertainment).”
Some others I have contacted have seen me as emblematic of a problem in society – selfishness and lack of respect for others. “You parked your car to satisfy your short-term needs,” one user told me. “Those cars back and forth now can’t get out.” Several dozen tweets told me I was capable; either I had not left enough space for a person to use a ramp to get into his car, or I had not considered that some people with disabilities would find it difficult to get out of such a space narrow. I disagreed with the spirit of this argument. The barriers faced by people with disabilities in navigating a city, whether by car or public transportation, are a systemic issue, one that New York City often fails to address. But in this case, it was not the Mayor de Blasio or Governor Cuomo to deal with the task for this problem. Isha une.
“Millennials are bad,” said Emily Gorcenski, a data scientist and activist. “We are bad because we grew up living in a world that does not exist and does not exist because the people who raised us for that world made sure it did not exist. And we process our anger through all sorts of channels, from sarcasm in pure hatred and anger. It is often addressed to people with perceived and close powers: You have more followers than I do, you have a blue check, your tweet is viral – so you have to take responsibility. (“Printing small accounts with my big account,” as writer and big Twitter account Harron Walker once joked.)
I happened to be the target of anger that day, but the next week I watched as thousands of bird-loving people shouted at cat lovers on Twitter about their alleged participation in bird death. (“We’ve also found new creative ways to be bad,” Gorcenski noted.)
Gorcenski’s theory explains many of the messages I received: People were angry and I was the easiest means of expressing that anger. “I hate narcissists more than anything else, probably because I grew up as a malignant narcissist,” a 40-year-old Twitter user told me. “Not only did I see your parking in that way being overly selfish, but also the ‘I can not be ashamed’ attitude convinced me that you have to be a malignant narcissist.” I asked him if he was sorry he was so angry with me, knowing I had seen his tweet. No, he said. It felt deserved.
Finally, I asked the user who had called me “an objectively bad person” to comment. He said the same thing as the others: It was mostly thought of as a joke. And then he showed something I had not considered. I had been the one who took the screenshot of his tweet, and this was the tweet that became megaviral. I had a lot more followers than him, and I had put him on the blast to provide him with fun. So how did I change from the trolls that came after me?
He took me there.