After writing about HBO and "Sesame Street" last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of whether our own sense of idealism and purpose in the world today is not at times deeply misplaced.
Apple, for instance, has at this point more or less convinced the world that buying their products somehow constitutes making the world a better place/is a vote for the future. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Apple Watch up close yet, but it’s basically a mirror that you wear on your wrist. It’s like a cat toy for human beings, far more interested in garnering attention (aka selling more cat toys) than it is actually serving any useful purpose in our world. (And one can only hope that there aren’t thousands of workers hidden away in some corner of Asia whose suffering is the underlying cost of our so-called investment in the future.) (Hey Amazon. How you livin'?)
On Twitter, too, I think there is a tendency to believe that issuing a 140 character response to a matter of urgency actually constitutes making a difference. It’s not a completely unreasonable notion, as the Arab Spring made clear. Some might even look to the public virtual execution of Cecil-the-Lion-Killer Walter Palmer as a kind of good deed—though I doubt his wife, his children, his relatives or his employees would agree.
But most of the righteous indignation on Twitter may in fact do more harm than good, in that it convinces us that in posting something we’ve done our part when in fact with rare exceptions nothing has changed.
Or if so, only for the worse. Jon Ronson writes compellingly in his book "So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed" of how catastrophic the random and often poorly-considered attention of Twitter can be upon ordinary people. His point in a nutshell: when you or I make our devastatingly hilarious quip about the person-who did/said stupid or the embarrassed celebrity of the week, we experience it as us just tossing out one insulting comment – and not at the person directly but into the universe. Like we’re just talking to our friends behind the person’s back.
But when a million people do that, for the person on the other end of the Internet it is the equivalent of being beaten to death. (Except you keep living and it keeps coming.)
Twitter—it’s where we go to complain. And let’s be honest, encapsulating the craziness of another human being in 140 characters is terribly satisfying.
But maybe we also need the Twitter equivalent of a Swear Jar. Some response we demand of ourselves when we use Twitter to make the world a little more awful place.
Like, think of this—how much money could be raised for the needs of women or immigrants if we each donated a dollar for every mean tweet we’ve written recently about Donald Trump? Or for gun safety after a choice (and usually well-deserved) slam of the NRA? ("The NRA. We love your children, but what does that have to do with machine guns?") Or for PBS after writing an entire article in which you rip into HBO about its new, “Yes, it’s still for needy kids, they just have to pay for premium cable first” model for "Sesame Street"?
Honestly, you think about how we all spend our time on Twitter... if we took this seriously, we could raise like, Taylor Swift money.
We’ve got the pope coming. What if as an experiment for that month of September, every time we find that we’ve posted a mean tweet, or gotten in a Twitter street fight, no matter how completely crazy the person we’re tweeting about is, we put a dollar in a jar. And at the end of the month we each donate that money to a charity. Someplace that actually helps people or makes the world a better place, like NPR or Catholic Relief Services or Water.org or the Kino Border Initiative.
We could even tweet about where we send our money and why. Or make fun of other mean tweeters—who will likely then make fun of us, and us them, and them us, and maybe we'll each draw in some onlookers along the way, as well as almost certainly a few bored trolls who have no idea of the context but hey, they've never really liked you and your stupid Twitter Swear Jar-y ideas anyway, creating a neverending feedback loop of hostility that could do so much good!
Here’s the thing: whether our indignation in a given situation is indeed righteous or just plain appalling, the fact is the only real way that we can actually make a difference in that situation or in our world is by actually digging in and helping. The hazard of a company like Apple right now is that it tries to convince us that purchasing its products is somehow itself a visionary form of idealism or social progress. (Can anyone honestly believe that Martin Luther King or Albert Einstein would not be appalled to find their image and accomplishments were being used to shill watches and phones?)
The danger of Twitter is that it gives us the feeling of having accomplished something when in fact we have done nothing at all. Or if we have done something, generally it’s that we’ve made the world a little more sour place. Because what the world really needs now is that.
Sometimes the cutting quip is just so hard to resist. (A confession: Jimmy Kimmel’s mean tweets actually make me want to find celebrities to criticize.) And we give in.
Fine. Show the world how brilliant you are. Then put a buck in the jar, try to do a little better next time—Dear Everyone, We get it, Donald Trump has weird hair. Enough already.
And at the end of the September, we’ll give it all away.