22nd 2011
Why the internet & Twitter suck

Posted under: American history, bad language, childhood, Gender, the body, unhappy endings, wankers, women's history

Writing about parenting decisions on the internet is hazardous if you are a mother.  It doesn’t matter that the mistake in question wasn’t yours, and that instead it was a nurse’s fault that your child received the wrong vaccine.  If you are a mother, you will only be attacked as a neglectful mother/helicopter parent/narcissist/etc.  (Don’t believe me?  Just skim some of the first comments, if you dare.  I’m still trying to wrap my head around her being called both neglectful AND a helicopter parentAwesome!)

If you as a mother simultaneously transfused blood into your child WHILE lifting a burning car off of her body, you’ll still be told U R doin’ it RONG.  You’re a helicopter (or Jaws of Life) parent!  Parents do too much for their kids these days!  What a narcissist–why would you write about a private trauma like that?  It was dangerously irresponsible for you not to call 911 and let the paramedics handle that!  Take take take–that’s all they’ll ever learn if you do everything for them!!!!11!!!1!1!

It’s difficult for me to imagine that a father who wrote a similar essay would be subject to such patronizing, dismissive, and nasty lectures from anonymous (and not-so-anonymous) commenters and tweeters.  In fact, in the world I inhabit, I think it’s quite plausible that he’d be offered warm, gooey cookies for an essay like that, even (or especially?) from feminist writers.  A man who takes his daughters to the pediatrician, AND lets them make their own decisions about the HPV vaccination!  Oooohhh–we can only imagine how scared you and your daughter must have been when you got the phone call!  Swoon!!!

Excuse me–I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth. 

I thought Mary Elizabeth Williams’s original essay about how her daughter was mistakenly and without her consent given the HPV vaccine was thoughtful and raised important issues about feminist values, children, and medical consent.  I also can easily imaging writing a response that differed with her opinions and reactions, and yet didn’t make dark accusations about her mental capacity or her abilities as a parent.

One more thought:  Twitter should be used cautiously, if at all.  140 characters doesn’t allow for a thoughtful response, let alone a nuanced argument.  As far as I can tell, Twitter feeds are just digital food fights.  Thanks, but I think there’s enough hostility and name-calling on the internets already.


43 Responses to “Why the internet & Twitter suck”

  1. JJO on 22 Jul 2011 at 7:01 am #

    Wow. I thought the original article and response were pretty well done. We had a minor vaccine mixup — child got the wrong shot, albeit one that ze would have had the following year anyway — and it was pretty unsettling, even without the added level of complexity about adolescents’ sexuality and medical consent. Any parent would understandably have a pretty intense reaction to that. We switched doctors, and told the office why.

    There’s nothing better for making you lose faith in humanity than the comment sections of large media outlets, even ones you’d think would be thoughtful (like Salon or the CHE).

  2. James Stripes on 22 Jul 2011 at 7:10 am #

    “Twitter feeds are just digital food fights.”

    I wanna steal that line!

  3. Historiann on 22 Jul 2011 at 7:17 am #

    Steal away, James! I don’t even need a footnote. (‘Cause I’m sure someone else has said it already, probably a zillion times!)

    Even moderated comments like those at the NYT are frequently dripping with condescention and attitude for women writers. Whereas before the internets, the only people who were acquainted with the racism and sexism of the readership of their publications were the folks who screened letters to the editor, now we all can see it! Awesome!!!

    And I think the comments at sites like Salon and The Nation illustrate quite nicely that so-called liberals and progressives are at least as guilty of these biases, although they like to pretend that it’s only right-wingers who are racist and sexist.

  4. Jonathan Dresner on 22 Jul 2011 at 7:39 am #

    As a twitter-skeptic-turned-convert, I take exception to the last paragraph. I’ve got a collection of twitter accounts that I follow that are informative, entertaining, and I have some followers who seem to think the same of my mix of history, teaching, academic and political commentary. Mostly link-sharing, what the “weblog” started out as, but also some good discussions. Is 140 characters too short? Sometimes, which is why you sometimes have to use a series of tweets, or link to another platform like tweetlonger or a blog. Is it a “food fight”? Only in fun. I’ve seen some flaming arguments, just like in blogging. Sometimes you just unfollow someone. It’s lively, diverse, dynamic, and there are a lot of interesting historians, lit people, feminists, museum folks, antiquarians, activists and regional scholars.

  5. Historiann on 22 Jul 2011 at 8:09 am #

    I know that some people use Twitter productively, Jonathan. But as someone who is feeling the real limits of even blog-based conversations (blogging is also frequently about outraging people, and people of bad faith exploit that), it seems to me that the 140-character limit imposed by the medium really amps up the problems I see with blogs.

    I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s Twitter feeds, really–I guess I’m just explaining why I think I’ll always remain a skeptic.

  6. Knitting Clio on 22 Jul 2011 at 8:31 am #

    Wow, this woman dares to treat her adolescent daughter as a developing adult (i.e. follows the recommendation of experts in adolescent medicine). Kudos to her. Interesting that feminists like Marcotte and Politt are all for choice and bodily autonomy, unless the body in question belongs to a teenager.

  7. Katrina on 22 Jul 2011 at 8:40 am #

    I’ll agree with Jonathan here (even though he doesn’t follow me on the Twitterz! ;)

    While I think twitter can be used destructively, so can any medium: and the speed of twitter means things can be drowned out, too.

    I know from some friends that they find the prospect of blogging quite intimidating, as they just see it as a burden to produce a large amount of text regularly, whereas twitter is less pressure.

    One thing Twitter has been GREAT for, from an academic standpoint, is finding hard-to-get articles and references. I’ve been delighted with how generous the community of historians (#twitterstorians) are in fact, in terms of sharing research information.

  8. widgeon on 22 Jul 2011 at 8:49 am #

    My local paper, _The Buffalo News_, now requires commentators to supply their full name and address. These are checked before their comments are posted. It has dramatically decreased the vitriol, but very few publications have followed suit.

  9. rustonite on 22 Jul 2011 at 9:09 am #

    Reading the comments section of the local paper is my guilty pleasure. The headline will be something like “Bridge closed for repairs,” and my first thought will be, “I can’t wait to see how redneck33 blames socialism for this.” The internets are bad for public discourse, but absolutely hilarious.

  10. koshem Bos on 22 Jul 2011 at 10:02 am #

    From mothers most of us deteriorated into blogs and Twittes. Since I am a father and grandfather and have only sons and grandsons, I’ll keep quite on mothers problems.

    You can convey a ton of meaningful ideas with 140 characters. I make my students explain to me everything they did in 2-3 sentences, if they fail they don’t understand well enough what they have done.

  11. Leslie on 22 Jul 2011 at 10:09 am #

    I haven’t read all the comments over at Salon…but I do have to wonder why the nurse isn’t catching more flak for making a potentially serious mistake. Issues of parenting, choice, and bodily autonomy aside–and despite there being “no harm done”–I really think it’s fair for us to expect health care providers to do careful, accurate work.

    Write about mothering at your own risk; that’s regrettably true.

  12. Jonathan Dresner on 22 Jul 2011 at 10:20 am #

    It’s all about learning to communicate, and reaching out in as many directions as possible. The trick to dealing with bad actors is to not be a bad actor. I’ve stopped reading blog comments on most blogs with large audiences, but that is a problem of crowds, not of blogs. Twitter restricts only the length of a single tweet: I’ve had some subtle and substantive discussions, even some interesting disagreements, without feeling terribly constricted.

    Be a skeptic or avoider if you like, but that last paragraph was outrageously uninformed, a shocking negation of the rest of the post.

  13. Historiann on 22 Jul 2011 at 11:15 am #

    Jonathan: gimme a break. Because I don’t share your opinion about Twitter it negates “the rest of the post?” Srsly: you’re confirming my view of Tweeters as people who just want to mix it up and flame others.

    Leslie: in the comments, many demand that the nurse be FIRED! That struck me as a ridiculous overreaction too, as much as the attacks on Williams.

  14. Z on 22 Jul 2011 at 11:39 am #

    From the beginning line I was thinking: oh no, so she ended up unvaccinated and is now disabled from polio, or oh no, she was known to be allergic to the vaccine and is now dead. But I thought part of the point of the article was to warn people to think of precisely those possibilities. Accidents will happen, mistakes will be made, etc. – commenters need to get a grip.

  15. Historiann on 22 Jul 2011 at 11:45 am #

    Fortunately the child wasn’t harmed in any way, and it sounds like she would probably have elected to get the HPV vaccine anyway given her mother’s medical history. Fratguy tells me that the HPV is a sequence of doses given at 3 different times, so that if she didn’t want to take the next 2 doses, she could elect not to.

  16. comparatrice on 22 Jul 2011 at 12:21 pm #

    I dunno: for me “suck” is not a blanket condemnation when applied to something vast and heterogeneous (viz. “teaching sucks”). Twitter can be valuable, informative, *and* sucky. In fact, this seems to me like a very accurate description of Twitter (and “the internet”).

    In that vein, I do love your posts on mother-policing, even though I haven’t built up sufficient defenses against the policing hordes and can stay angry about them for hours — which sucks a bit, if only for me. The second paragraph ought to be painstakingly needlepointed and framed on a wall. And just this morning I thought of you, and your writing on this theme, while reading the New Yorker profile of the French egalitarian feminist Elisabeth Badinter (article behind paywall, link goes to summary) — if you have access to it, I’d be really curious to know what you thought either of the piece or of her work.

  17. Jonathan Dresner on 22 Jul 2011 at 12:24 pm #

    Good. Stay off it, then. I’ll not bother you here again.

  18. Janice on 22 Jul 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    It’s the nature of internet comment section (which Twitter can be, writ large). FB status updates, Twitter feeds, open threads on big forums – they are all places where people instantly fall to the lowest levels of discourse and where Godwin’s Law is only one example of the extremities to which people go in order to support their manufactured outrage.

    Gender slamming on the internet is simply our social tendencies magnified and, as you note, it’s as often invoked by women against women as it is by men. The patriarchy sucks, that way.

    From 1998-2001, I moonlighted as a community producer for iVillage.com. Let me tell you that it was no fun to police some of the message boards there where people slammed each other (mostly women since that was the site focus, but not exclusively). You’re so right that whatever a woman did, the response often devolved down to U R doin’ it RONG! We poured a lot of time into keeping the boards clean of ad hominem or ad feminam attacks.

    Now, with Twitter? I block a fair number of people if I stumble across their feed and find it full of vitriol. I am happy to follow a few hundred interesting individuals who don’t engage in the kind of stupidity we see there at Salon!

    I wish that there was something like Gmail Goggles for Twitter and newspaper comment sections. It wouldn’t be a cure-all, but it might make people stop and think before they spew their stupidity all over the internet!

    So it isn’t Twitter or FB or message boards or even the internet that are to blame. It’s how we use them as a society and how many rotten jerks there are with too much time on their hand that make it a problem.

  19. fratguy on 22 Jul 2011 at 12:54 pm #

    I dunno, I’ve gone back and forth on this quite a bit. Is this a mistake I’d lose sleep over as a provider? No. On the other hand wrt issues of autonomy and consent does mom have a right to be pissed righteouly, absolutely. Do way way way worse things happen to innocent children all over the world whose parents do not have a national media outlet in which to vent ? Absolutely. Do I keep this sentiment to myself when I am the one who screwed up or is face to face with a sick child? Abslutiely and invariably. Do any of the twittering thugs have a right or standing to stick their boot in about the commenters decision to approach the vaccine in the way she did ? Hell f!ng no, that conversation occurs in the exam room or over the phone and others, in agreement or disagreement are simply unwelcome.

  20. Susan on 22 Jul 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    H’ann, I’m not sure what you don’t understand: you’re neglectful if ANYTHING happens to your child that you haven’t authorized, but if you care about it, you’re a helicopter parent. It’s really simple. Heads I win, tails you lose.

    Seriously, the end of her first piece was about paying attention when they give you shots. It’s good advice. I’m grateful that most of the time when I get blood drawn, or other tests, someone asks me my name and checks against the list that they are doing the right test or whatever.

  21. Feminist Avatar on 22 Jul 2011 at 1:43 pm #

    I found it quite fascinating that a mother is not allowed to be an emotional being in front of her children (perhaps other than loving or supportive). This woman got a fright on the phone and reacted in front of her children, and her children read her response and got frightened themselves. Big Whoop. I think one of the most important things children need to learn is that their parent’s are human beings with their own foibles and limitations; it gives them a sense of perspective, stops them being disappointed when their parent’s turn out to be human; and gives them a better understanding of the nature of the human condition. And feminists judging a woman for being human is jarring…

  22. Leslie on 22 Jul 2011 at 1:43 pm #

    @fratguy – Well said!

    @H’ann – well, no, the nurse shouldn’t be fired over this. Reminded of procedure, perhaps (every time my kids get shots, there’s a ritual of explanation, permission, getting information about possible side effects).

    I sometimes wonder if the vitriol surrounding parenting choices has to do with a certain fearfulness in parents. Even when you think you’re doing it right, there’s that little voice saying, “or maybe I’m not; maybe I’m wrong.” Loudly criticizing others can drown out that still small voice….

  23. Z on 22 Jul 2011 at 2:10 pm #

    F.A. – yes. It seems the mother should have been unperturbed enough for the child not to cry. They are all so convinced they are so right and know so much about this particular situation.

  24. Comrade PhysioProf on 22 Jul 2011 at 2:20 pm #

    Fucke motherfucken twitter. Fucken twittering facebooking gibbering fucken imbeciles voluntarily delivering their private lives to fucken sociopathic corporations for resale to other fucken sociopathic corporations. I’ll fucken hammer a billion nails through my fucken dicke and pour a trillion gallons of gasoline on it and light the motherfucker on fire with a fucken thermonuclear bomb before I’ll involve myself in that fucken vicious destructive garbage. Fucke me.

    Now for a more elaborate explanation of my position:

    First, I believe that it–like Facebook–is deeply destructive of the mental operation of contemplation. The entire intrinsic structure of the medium is 100% oriented towards MORE, FASTER, BRIEFER, SUPERFICIALER communication. It is about collecting: friends, links, retweets, followers, hashtags, etc, and not about describing, explaining, or contemplating. It is about avoiding deep thought, not embracing it.

    Second, it is about DOMINATING discourse, not diversifying it. It is about defining insiders and outsiders. What’s trending! Am I cool!!! Did I start a new hashtag!!! How many people follow me!

    Third, it is grossly destructive of the practice of constructing decent complete grammatical sentences in the English language (and, I’m sure, other languages that poor dumb twittering fuckes in other countries use). Why should I learn to read and write in some bizarre semaphoric bastardized illiterate form of English language just so that a bunch of assholes can whip out hundreds of least-common-denominator atomized communications as fast as possible like it’s some kind of massive throbbing cocke to smack other people in the face with? Get your fucken twitdicke out of my face: I’m not interested.

    Fourth, it enables a form of herd behavior with masses of people rushing around like lunatics flogging their fucken hashtags and leaping off rhetorical cliffs that I find extremely distasteful. What’s the fucken hurry? Do I really need access to anyone’s thoughts but my own in real time?

    Fifth, at the end of the day, it’s corporate shill shitte. Some massive corporation is leveraging off content that users provide them for free in order to make fucketonnes of money. No thanks.

  25. Historiann on 22 Jul 2011 at 3:36 pm #

    Thanks, all. I especially appreciate Janice’s nuance and historical memory of internets communication that was clearly missing from my use of “suck” in the headline. But, I thought it was a pretty obvious overstatement, since you’re reading this on the internets. (And in response to similar blogfights, I once used the headline “Why blogs suck,” for example. Comparatrice gets the rhetorical strategy here, I think.)

    Susan hit the nail on the head: “I’m not sure what you don’t understand: you’re neglectful if ANYTHING happens to your child that you haven’t authorized, but if you care about it, you’re a helicopter parent. It’s really simple.”

    And, Physioproffe encapsulated my disinterest in most social media exactly (except the part about hammering nails through my d!ck.)

  26. fratguy on 22 Jul 2011 at 3:43 pm #

    @ Feminist Avatar, exactly. Even on the recieving end of such freak outs, one cannot begrudge the parent one word or tear.

  27. Historiann on 22 Jul 2011 at 3:47 pm #

    And, I meant to say that I think Leslie makes a good point about parental pile-ons being about anxiety or fear about one’s own parenting decisions and choices. I wish people would just admit that no parent is perfect but that the vast majority make the best calls they can at the time, and STFU with the internet lectures and nasty comments.

    It’s not like anyone b!tching on the internet is going to protect a child from real abuse.

    I still think a d00d would have been applauded for his sensistivity and involved-ness in his preadolescent daughters’ future sexual health. Especially from feminists. It’s amazing how we take each other’s unpaid labor for granted, isn’t it?

  28. Cloud on 22 Jul 2011 at 4:03 pm #

    Expanding on Leslie’s point: I think people get so invested in any of these parenting decisions/food fights because we want so desperately to ensure a good outcome for our kids, and we so clearly cannot do that. And that is scary and brings out the worst in people if we do not consciously check that tendency.

    That, and people are judgmental jerks and the anonymity of the internet allows them to indulge that with no cost. So I guess in that way, I agree iwth you, Historiann. The internet and twitter suck.

    comparatrice, how many months/years in are you? I found that I got better at ignoring the judgmental crap after I had the first definitive proof that my parenting method on something worked, despite the dire warnings of the mothering police. (My kid started sleeping through the night in her own bed, even though I never made her cry it out and we partial night coslept for quite awhile. And this happened well in advance of her leaving for college- she was two.)

  29. Sisyphus on 22 Jul 2011 at 5:12 pm #

    Historian, you wouldn’t happen to know of a nice, short, accessible article that traces out how judgmental society is of mothers and constantly second-guesses them and denigrates them, would you? Maybe one that could be assigned in an undergraduate class?

  30. Comrade PhysioProf on 22 Jul 2011 at 6:49 pm #

    You can just hammer a billion nails through fratguy’s dicke.

  31. Z on 22 Jul 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    I have fallen in love with Comrade RisottoProf due to his above comment on social media.

  32. Z on 22 Jul 2011 at 7:46 pm #

    P.S. Not the one on fratguy and the nails.

  33. Feminist Avatar on 23 Jul 2011 at 3:09 am #

    I never really got twitter until the recent political protests over here, where people tweeted events as they happened. It was fascinating to hear the various accounts of what was happening as it happened, learning of where the police were and what they were doing; where the protesters were etc. It gave the events an immediacy and excitement (to someone sitting at work and not at the events) that other news forms didn’t. (Imagined or not), you also got a sense that you were ‘nearer’ to the ‘truth’ (ha!) because you weren’t hearing the news from a third-person journalist, but from the participants.

    Plus I really don’t give a fucke about the bastardisation of the English language- dudes have been bitchin about that since the middle-ages.

  34. Reminder to Certain Feminists: Teenagers have rights to choice and bodily autonomy too « Knitting Clio on 23 Jul 2011 at 5:50 am #

    [...] Historiann, who discusses Mary Elizabeth Williams’ Twitter battle with Katha Pollitt and Amanda Marcotte [...]

  35. Pick a little, talk a little. . . : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 23 Jul 2011 at 6:17 am #

    [...] The kerfuffle in the feminist internets that I wrote about yesterday somehow recalls this scene for me. “She advocates dirty books: CHAW-ser. RABBaLAYS. BALL-zac!” Knitting Clio, a historian of medicine who has written about adolescent medicine in particular, has more to say about this–check her out. [...]

  36. Z on 23 Jul 2011 at 8:08 am #

    @FA yes, that’s the exception I’d make for use of Twitter. Also, depending on who you have on it, you can use Facebook that way – my neighborhood does this for hurricane cooperation. But.

  37. Miranda on 23 Jul 2011 at 8:57 am #

    I think it’s interesting that no one cares that the wrong medicine was given to the girl. No harm was done in this instance, but that just means everyone involved was incredibly lucky.

    When I was caregiver to my mother, I ended up getting my own copy of the chemo orders and double-checking them against the nurse because they almost gave her the meds in the wrong sequence. This was a big damn issue because she was highly allergic (as in almost died in the treatment room) to the primary drug and could only take it buffered with steroids. They came in to hook her up to the medication, I asked about the steroid, and the response was “Oh, I guess I better read the order.” No sh*t.

    Then there was the time I got hit in the face with the backwash from the injection to the IV. I was very glad I wear glasses because otherwise I would have gotten Carboplatin in my eyes.

  38. Aaron on 24 Jul 2011 at 9:34 am #

    You all may appreciate this (comic) about gender / feminism on the internet: http://www.gabbysplayhouse.com/?p=1444

  39. Emma on 28 Jul 2011 at 2:39 pm #

    I understand how getting the wrong vaccine would be unnerving, as would be getting any incorrect medicine.

    What I don’t get is the added level of, yes, hysteria about it being the HPV vaccine.

    You know what? It’s a vaccine. It doesn’t implicate the child’s sexuality any more than getting rabies shots implies that this child wants to go tease a rabid dog until it bites her. It’s a *vaccine*. The level of hysteria over this particular vaccine is ridiculous and this column is one more idiotic entry into that hysteria, all parenting issues aside.

  40. Emma on 28 Jul 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    “On the other hand wrt issues of autonomy and consent does mom have a right to be pissed righteouly, absolutely.”

    How much of a choice was the child given over whether or not she was going to get the measles vaccine? Or any other vaccine that wasn’t for – *gasp* – an STD?

    This kid had zero autonomy over getting any other vaccine. She was never asked to consent to getting any other vaccine. Why is it so horrible that she didn’t have autonomy over this particular vaccine?

    HPV vaccines should be a mandatory just like measles and polio vaccines are mandatory. There’s no damn difference.

  41. Emma on 28 Jul 2011 at 3:31 pm #

    “Do any of the twittering thugs have a right or standing to stick their boot in about the commenters decision to approach the vaccine in the way she did ? Hell f!ng no, that conversation occurs in the exam room or over the phone and others, in agreement or disagreement are simply unwelcome.”

    Except that, she’s the one who put it out there. She didn’t leave the conversation in the exam room. Can’t put it out there and then tell people they can’t talk about it.

  42. Rosemary on 28 Jul 2011 at 7:41 pm #

    Personally, I thought Marcotte’s original response and defensiveness instead of real apology was very disappointing. The overreactions weren’t simply in the Salon comments (if these were on paper, you’d be wrapping fish with them…). But the internet for so many means never having to say you’re sorry, right?

  43. jack on 01 Feb 2012 at 10:48 pm #

    Everyone is a complete shithead for trusting the doctors who have an agenda (minus trivial EMERGENCIES). Or obliviously too careless to research what those vaccines really do… if you did though… I would have seen a lawsuit!

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