The eye of the storm

Marie Le Conte on the bruising experience of inadvertently becoming the target of a Twitter feeding frenzy


There is one rule about Twitter that is probably worth knowing about. As @maple-cocaine put it, “Each day on Twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it.”

What they meant is that Twitter is a place where people go to have opinions; most of them about the news of the day, but a sizeable portion about something that happened on the platform. Usually, it is someone who posted something which, for some reason, angered just about enough users to get a discussion going. Once that happens, another side will pop up to argue with that original set of users; then the analysis will come, the digging into that person’s online history, the pointless calls for civility, and so on. Think of it as a book club, but daily, angrier, and with a real person at the centre of it all, who generally did not ask for any of it.

I should know; despite my best efforts, I have been the protagonist of Twitter a few times. I am, for context, a freelance journalist who writes about politics, and I wrote a book about political gossip that was as successful as a book on political gossip can be. Professionally, I am not quite someone but not quite no one either.

One morning in May last year, I was watching Knock Down The House, a documentary about progressive women running for Congress which I was reviewing for a magazine. One of the candidates was the now-famous Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom we watched run around New York in her trademark red lipstick, hoop earrings and sharp outfits.

At some point, the camera cut to her partner, sporting an over-sized, well-worn T-shirt, and with the shaggy hair and bushy beard of someone potentially raised by wolves. The contrast between the two amused me, and I posted a picture of him, alongside some joke pointing out that while she always looked stunning, he just looked like a “bin raccoon”.

The tweet gained some popularity, and though some of my followers argued I’d been a bit mean, I thought that calling a man scruffy was pretty harmless. It had all died down after an hour or two, at least until everyone else arrived. Since Twitter is a global platform, we European users get to have the timeline to ourselves until about noon, at which point America wakes up in waves.

They are no longer talking to you but about you to each other; it’s a book club and you’re the book

We welcome in the New Yorkers first, and go west until Californians join the conversation in our mid-afternoon. It can be quite pleasant, especially when something amusing has happened in the news. Just like half the joy of learning a good joke is to then get to tell it to new people, we get to witness the joy spread from time zone to time zone. Sadly, this works for outrage as well; though my British audience didn’t have strong feelings about a Congresswoman and her raggedy boyfriend, AOC’s supporters didn’t take kindly to my quip.

By the time I was in the pub after work, my Twitter app had become unusable; by the time I met up with two colleagues for dinner, I’d deleted the tweet in a panic. As often happens with anxiety-inducing memories, I remember little from that evening. We were at Bocca Di Lupo and my two companions were trying to discuss the project we’d been working on, but I kept glancing in panic at my phone.

It’s hard to describe what it feels like, being the main character on Twitter. People tweet at you, at first to criticise what you said, then insulting you for what you said, then trying to find other things you said to criticise and insult you for, then moving on to discussing your appearance, what you may be like in bed, and anything else they can think of. They also tweet about you, which is more disconcerting if you aren’t a celebrity, which I am not. They are no longer talking to you but about you to each other; it’s a book club and you’re the book.

At least a book is self-contained; when you become the main character, people take the dots that they have, link them up, then add some new ones where they think they should be and at the end of it there is a person they can attack, but only a small part of that person is you. It was decided I was a frustrated and uptight straight woman; I am bisexual. It was decreed that I was a racist white woman; I am mixed-race.

A few days later, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made her boyfriend cut his hair and trim his beard, and posted a video on Instagram where someone out of shot called him a bin raccoon and he laughed. I had found the joke funny; the subjects of my joke had found the joke funny; it’s just a shame that the thousands of people standing between us disagreed.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

It is also frustrating that this was not the first time I was dubbed Villain of the Day, nor was it the last. There was the time I had an idea for a play and asked if there were bursaries one could apply for, and was called every name under the sun for daring to assume that I, a mere journalist, could simply steal money from honest, hard-working playwrights. There was the time I hoped the pandemic would mark the end of small-plates restaurants, which was deemed bigoted as many countries share food as a standard. Repeat, ad nauseam.

I experimented with the responses; sometimes I came out fighting and defiantly stood my ground. Sometimes I apologised because I recognised I’d called it wrong; sometimes I apologised despite knowing I was right, just so I could have some peace and quiet. Nothing worked; attendees of a book club have no interest in a book that talks back, and the original material is the only one that matters.

Most recently, there was the time I asked people for the London neighbourhood they hated the most for the pettiest reason. In my case it was Stoke Newington, as a former partner lived there and we once crawled out of his flat with head-splitting hangovers to get some brunch, and were glared at by an army of prim yummy mummies. There were some amusing answers at first, then some dull ones, then the perhaps unavoidable tasteless ones from white Londoners keen to show their disdain for mostly BME areas.

I was, inevitably, blamed for the latter, despite not having asked for them; after a while, it was inferred that my tweet had been a dog whistle and that I’d wanted those comments all along. Then there was the fact that I am not even from London, and perhaps I should leave if I don’t like it here, as if you must adore every nook and cranny of a place to be allowed to live there. It was preposterous but maybe the last straw was always going to be.

While the fires were still raging, I created a much smaller, private account, to which I only invited people I knew in person, or at least well enough online.

Though it is hard not to feel at least a bit bitter about losing something I so dearly enjoyed, this is not intended as an exercise in self-pity; rather, an understanding that what makes Twitter so enjoyable is also what slowly destroys its users. If you are good at it, you become more popular, and the more popular you are, the more likely it is that you will have a bad time on it.

Perhaps it is best to lay low, and enjoy it from the sidelines; perhaps the thrill comes from knowing you may be next. I genuinely don’t know. What I do know is that there is a reason why realistic accounts of royal courts make them sound unbearable. People aren’t meant to live their lives stuck in closed quarters with hundreds of others they barely know, no matter how gilded the cage is.

Twitter users must be ready for the possibility that they can be thrown to the wolves at a moment’s notice

If you know that everything you do is being watched by everyone around you because a lot of people want you — anyone! — to slip up to alleviate the boredom, you will start going mad. Like in any court, the game is more of an issue than the players; no matter how hard anyone tries, they will eventually join the book club, provided that the book is compelling enough for them.

And, like in any court, we know we adhere to the rules because we are there for a reason. People spend their days on Twitter because it helps their work, their profile, their social networks, friendship groups, love lives, or a combination of all of the above. In exchange, they must be ready for the possibility that they can be thrown to the wolves at a moment’s notice.

Sometimes the risk is worth it; it certainly was for me for the past decade. But then we must all know to walk away at some point, and I would rather be no one if it means I am no longer turned into someone I am not.

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