If you have a Twitter account and look hard enough, it’s easy to believe the worst about the world. Should you be looking for something to hate, social media will easily help you find it. You can type in hateful slurs and be reminded that racism is alive and well, or search for Michael Sam’s name with some choice homophobic language and be convinced that the world is out to get what could be the world’s first openly gay NFL player. When it comes to Twitter, the Internet universe is what you make of it—the version you choose to believe—and today it feels like we’ve been taken over by the trolls.
In recent years, it’s become de rigueur to get angry about what people say on social media, based on a small sampling of tweets or status updates that you’ve pulled back from the void. If you were taking a statistics class, none of this would hold up as being a valuable sample set. If you wanted to prove that everyones believes Hillary Clinton is a lizard person and Grumpy Cat should be the future leader of society, you could easily find 10 people who agree if you look hard enough.
No scholarly study could ever be supported by the opinions of 10 wackjobs, but those wackjobs rule the Internet, helping us illustrate a self-fulfilling prophecy that everything sucks.
Evidence: Twenty people had Islamophobic reactions to Zero Dark Thirty. Conclusion: Everything sucks. Evidence: Fifteen people tweeted racist things about the Miss America pageant. Conclusion: Everything sucks. Evidence: My mom’s best friend thinks Obama is the anti-Christ and won’t shut up about it on Facebook. Extrapolate evidence to make a comment about all humanity: Yup, everything still sucks. It’s not a very compelling message.
“Everything sucksism” was a term coined by Nathan Rabin in a column for The Onion A.V. Club to decry a trend of ironic detachment in pop culture, shitting on things just for the purpose of shitting on them. Rabin was talking about our habit of taking down sitting ducks for sport. They’re easy targets and we gain little from calling out their foibles, but we do it anyway. According to Rabin, this culture is “cheap adolescent nihilism.”
“Everything sucksism is ugly, it’s cheap, it contributes nothing of value to popular culture and worst of all, it’s not funny,” Nathan Rabin argued. “Everything sucksism reduces all of human endeavor to a cheap punchline.”
The difference between Rabin’s thesis and the Plague of Twitter Aggregation is that Nathan Rabin was focusing on celebrity culture—our obsession with roasting Britney or K-Fed from the comfort a VH1 special. But in a post-Best Week Ever media universe, our ability to feel better than other people has been outsourced to social media and the blogosphere, a more personalized experience of everything sucks-ism. And what’s an easier target than some guy sitting on his computer in Tennessee picking the Cheetos out of his ass crack while he tweets what animals he thinks Obama looks like. No matter how much the world changes, guys like Cheeto Ass Crack Man will always exist. The difference is that now they all have a social media microphone and we can’t seem to stop giving them our attention.
In the moment, it feels good to call out Twitter racism, sexism, homophobia, or any social evil permeating the Internet, a sometimes necessary palliative for the microaggressions many marginalized groups face every day. When Justine Sacco tweeted about her forthcoming trip to Africa in November 2013, by saying that she wouldn’t have to worry about AIDS because she’s white, the Internet instantly pounced on her. Just as Justine boarded the plane, her tweet went viral; when she got off, she became a social media sensation. According to BuzzFeed, it became the “world’s top story.”
This could have been a moment to address racism structurally, a culture of privilege that makes us so divided from others’ struggles that we’d be willing to joke about the deaths of millions of innocent men, women, and children. But, of course, the outrage wasn’t social justice or raising awareness. It became about punishing one person for being stupid. Shortly after #HasJustineLandedYet started trending around the world, Sacco became inundated with death and rape threats. She had to delete her Twitter account for fear of her personal safety. This didn’t solve racism, and if Sacco is actually a racist, it likely didn’t solve her racism either. It just made racism log off.
In the wake of the controversy, however, one organization got it right. The Aid for Africa foundation purchased www.justinesacco.com and redirected it to their site, helping to move the conversation from dogpiling on white women to the actual issue. Aid for Africa reminded us that racism doesn’t just live on Twitter. Legacies of slavery and colonialism are the reason that the AIDS epidemic continues to devastate the African continent. In countries like Swaziland and Botswana, the infection rate is as high as 1 in 4. If people on Twitter were going to be constructive, figures like that are a good place to start.
Twitter can be an important tool to raise awareness, and Mikki Kendall’s #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen should act as a model for everyone on how social media can be used as a starting point for dialogue and community and justice. Kendall’s hashtag was created to criticize the way feminism often marginalizes women of color. To make the same point, she could have merely pulled together “20 Shockingly Racist Messages from Feminists on Twitter.” That article practically writes itself, and surely the evidence would be easy to find. However, her goal wasn’t to call out a tweet, but to call out a culture—the way all of us are responsible for the lack of inclusion.
When you make the conversation about everyone, we can’t feign ironic distance from the issue anymore, which is one of the reasons that Twitter Aggregation articles are so popular. Everything sucksism sells, and a story in which people on Twitter are bashing Michael Sam will prove more compelling to readers than one that demonstrates players and NFL personnel tweeting him messages of respect and support. A post about racist Miss America pageant viewers will go viral, and one about those who were inspired by her won’t. This is because focusing on how other people are get it wrong helps you prove you aren’t racist, deflecting blame for the evils of society.
Hate gets clicks and shares on social media. It’s a way to say, “Everything sucks but not me,” a kind of pat-yourself-on-the-backtivism for your Facebook page. But it isn’t activism at all. It’s shallow click-bait that disappears the moment those tweets vanish from viral memory, receding to the blackness from whence they emerged, dark places that aren’t made any brighter by nihilism. If you keep telling yourself the world is terrible, you make sure it stays that way.
Illustration by Jason Reed