How Twitter has stripped pop culture of its context and nuance

No form of culture, no matter how self-explanatory, will escape unscathed.

As far as internet scandals go, the Daniel Tosh “rape joke” controversy is ancient history, but it’s worth revisiting for a moment to consider what happens when a snippet of rhetoric is divorced from one medium and placed in another. In 2012, Tosh had been doing standup at the Laugh Factory, and during his set, he made a series of jokes about rape. At one point, a woman in the audience heckled him, yelling “rape jokes are never funny!” To which he replied: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?” 

For someone in the audience who knew of Tosh’s penchant for extremely dark, off-color humor—someone who had sat through his set up until then—Tosh’s transition from a series of rape jokes to directing those very jokes at one of his hecklers wouldn’t have seemed out of place. But then the heckler posted about her experience to Tumblr, and suddenly Tosh’s response to her became self-contained, and the Internet began evaluating what he said within the context of a single sentence rather than an entire set. And when you read that a celebrity told a woman that it’d be great if she got raped, then yes, that’s not very funny at all.

And if Tumblr, with its capacity for writing longer posts, can strip rhetoric from its context, imagine a quote being bandied about on Twitter. When Michael Hale, in mid-2014, snapped a photo of Neil deGrasse Tyson and tweeted it with the words, “Some guy using his laptop on the train like a Dumbass nerd lol,” he likely did so with the expectation that his followers would view it with the inherent wink wink Hale had intended. 

And I’m sure those who initially retweeted the photo did understand Hale’s intentional humor, but at that point, he lost any control over context as the tweet traveled into the streams of people who didn’t know him or care to scan through the backlog of Hale’s tweets to suss out whether he was seriously disparaging a much-loved scientist. “Instead of taking a second to analyze the post, scores of people took it at face value and began ripping me apart for being a moron (something I don’t entirely disagree with),” he wrote on Gawker. “How could you not know who that wasYou’re a fucking idiotI would have been kissing his feetI would have sucked his dick. Et cetera.”

Even attempts to realign a tweet within its proper context often prove futile. After Stephen Colbert’s social media team tweeted out “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever,” a satirical joke Colbert had made in a segment making fun of Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, a movement arose on Twitter with the hashtag #CancelColbert. In an interview, Suey Park, the activist who launched the #CancelColbert campaign, proudly announced that she hadn’t watched the Colbert Report clip the tweet referred to, even after her campaign went viral. “I think that’s an irrelevant question,” she told the interviewer who’d asked if she’d seen it. 

After Gawker writer Sam Biddle expressed remorse that his reporting on a tweet from Justine Sacco was blown vastly out of proportion, giving birth to a river of hate directed solely at Sacco, a Jezebel blogger proclaimed, “I Don’t Feel Sorry for Stupid White People on the Internet.”

What we’re quickly learning is that Twitter, as a medium, strips culture of its nuance, first cutting it into bite-sized pieces and then separating those pieces until they bear no connection to each other. How this trend has begun to impact and neuter pop culture was brilliantly detailed by Erik Voss in a piece on how Twitter has induced an OCD-like paranoia within the Saturday Night Live writing staff. What used to be a show that was evaluated over entire episodes or seasons has been anatomized into individual clips, each one rung through every PC and outrage filter the Internet has to offer. Voss quoted SNL cast member Aidy Bryant as saying:

One of the things we talk about a lot within the cast is how much the show now is broken down into three-minute chunks and dissected. I don’t think that happened in the ‘90s and the ‘80s and I wonder if there’s a purity to that that I envy sometimes. I think that if you went to go see a stand-up show or a sketch show live, you’d take it for what it is and just enjoy it: “I had a good time, and that’s what matters.” But it’s become such a math problem of “who has the most to do this week,” or “who had the most screentime?” … I think sometimes I almost feel like, it’s just a comedy show. You know? Just enjoy it and then go to bed.

This frustration boiled over into the show itself last November with a fake television promo for a sitcom called The Dudleys. With each version of the show, the writers become more reactionary to the demands of Twitter, first transforming a white heterosexual couple into a gay one, then adjusting the flamboyancy of the husbands, before finally giving into the Twitter demands for an interracial couple that engages in graphic sexual intimacy while raising two daughters, one of whom is Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black (it’ll probably make more sense if you just watch the video).

For as long as there’s been a media, we’ve had celebrities and politicians who claimed that it has been taking their words “out of context.” And it is difficult to write about this erosion of nuance without succumbing to cliched ruminations about our shortened attention spans and gravitation to two-minute cat videos. Nor do I want to decry the rise of political correctness. But it is helpful to understand how aggregation tears culture apart and assembles it back together again, how this can result in a single tweet of ours being slung across the web while losing its original intent in the process. 

This is not an ode to how culture is dying but rather a recognition of what it has become. It’s not that all pop culture needs to fit within 140 characters, but all pop culture can and will be broken into 140 character snippets. In many cases, those snippets will carry with them the artist’s original intent, but we also need to prepare ourselves for the inevitable mutation. Put another way, we must operate under the assumption that no form of culture, no matter how self-explanatory, will escape unscathed.

Simon Owens is a technology and media journalist living in Washington, D.C. This article was originally published on Medium. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or Google+. Email him at [email protected]

Screengrab via NBC/YouTube

Simon Owens

Simon Owens

Simon Owens is a technology and media journalist living in Washington, D.C. He's a former associate editor for PBS’ MediaShift and assistant managing editor at US News & World Report. His bylines have also appeared in the Atlantic, New York Magazine, Scientific American, Forbes, and others.