When I was a kid growing up in lower Manhattan, my father would always tell us, “The parking gods are on our side.” Circling the blocks around our apartment after running an errand, he never failed to find a spot — a skill he has passed down to me. A friend once described my ability to parallel park in New York City as “sexy,” and I agree: It is sexy, like being able to handle a power tool. Which is why, a few weeks ago, when I managed to fit my car into the smallest spot I had ever attempted, I felt a sense of pride. So I posted a photo of my parked car on Twitter, where I have 25,000-plus followers, with the obviously hyperbolic caption “not to brag but i deserve a nobel prize for this.” Then I put my phone away.
Within a few hours, the post had accumulated dozens of quote tweets. One person told me I was an “objectively bad person” for my parking job. I thought that was funny. So I screenshotted that and posted it with another obviously hyperbolic caption: “i am being cancelled for being good at parallel parking.” That tweet, insanely, now has 153,100 likes and more than 4,800 retweets. According to Twitter’s analytics, about 10 million people have seen it, and about 4,000 of them decided to reply. Some called me a shitty human being or an ableist; others told me they would key my car or pop my tires. Several threatened to fight me. Some simply said I was lying — one person created an SAT-style geometry diagram to prove, based on the dimensions and angles seen in the photograph, that my parking job was mathematically impossible.
I was taken aback. In the decade I have been on Twitter, I’ve experienced the wrath of the anonymous internet mob a couple of times: once when I tweeted that ADHD (which I’ve been diagnosed with) was a symptom of late capitalism, and another time when I tweeted that gender transition should be like converting to Judaism, where you must be approved by an authority (I am trans and Jewish and was also joking). Both of these posts prompted retweets calling me horrible names and DMs containing death threats, but the outrage, if not justified in its magnitude, was at least legible: I had posted a controversial opinion, and people were reacting to it. In the case of my parallel-parking job, though, I was perplexed. How could such a banal tweet elicit such anger? So I asked a few friends who are very online and were also enthralled by the response to my tweets to help decipher what was happening.
“The entire pretext of why they were allowed to come at you was so nonexistent,” said the writer Charlotte Shane. “That’s why I was so delighted by it, even though I was also horrified.”
One obvious explanation for the incident, Shane said, is that social-media sites are set up to stoke outrage. “It was put on our feeds for a reason,” she said. “Twitter was like, ‘You’re gonna waste your entire weekend tweeting garbage at someone you’ve never met.’ What Twitter wants is for all of us to be looking at a tweet that makes us so mad that we’re going to spend all day tweeting about it. That’s the dream scenario for the company.”
Before the internet, if someone posted a flyer on a lamppost advertising a book club to discuss a book you didn’t want to read, you likely would simply not attend. What would be the point? But today, with the most outrageous or incendiary posts flowing to the top of our feeds even if we have no interest in them, we’re all in one another’s book clubs — forced to see things we don’t like and algorithmically goaded into interacting with them.
There’s an academic name for this attributed to the technology researcher danah boyd: context collapse, in which disparate audiences that may not want to be in the same place together IRL are forced by social-media algorithms to share virtual space. And as tech writer Charlie Warzel has pointed out, the more this happens, the more angry and cynical people appear to become. Our corners of the internet keep being infiltrated by people we don’t know, ideas we don’t like; as a defense mechanism, we push back. A thousand book clubs competing for floor space at the world’s worst convention center.
Context collapse may explain the scale of the anger my parking job provoked, but it didn’t explain the anger itself. So I reached out to about 20 of the people who had come for me to learn more.
Zac, a 23-year-old in Pennsylvania with 224 followers who suggested I should be in jail for my parking job, told me he was being purposefully hyperbolic and the only intended audience was his friends. “[It] wouldn’t be as funny to be like, ‘Man, that’s impressive, but I’m concerned for the other cars!’ ” Zac messaged me. “Saying someone should go to jail for a park job is clearly absurd and something my followers got a kick out of.”
Zac also happens to have a linguistics degree, so he broke it down further. “The purpose of my tweet was not to try and scold. It was for entertainment,” he said. “And that’s why I think a lot of communication breakdowns happen online. The sole function of language on Twitter is different (communication versus entertainment).”
Several others I contacted saw me as emblematic of a problem in society — selfishness and a lack of regard for others. “You parked your car to satisfy your short-term needs,” one user told me. “Those cars in front and behind now can’t get out.” Several dozen tweets told me I was being ableist; either I hadn’t left enough room for a person to use a ramp to get into their car, or I hadn’t considered that some disabled people would have a hard time getting out of such a tight space. I didn’t disagree with the spirit of this argument. The barriers faced by disabled people in navigating a city, whether in a car or on public transit, are a systemic issue, one that New York City often falls short of addressing. But in this instance, it was not Mayor de Blasio or Governor Cuomo being taken to task over this problem. It was me.
“Millennials are mean,” said Emily Gorcenski, a data scientist and activist. “We’re mean because we’ve been raised to live in a world that doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t exist because the people who raised us for that world ensured it doesn’t exist. And we process our anger through all sorts of channels, from sarcasm to pure hatred and rage.” But because there is no organized forum for this anger, it can fire off at random and at whatever target happens to be closest. Often, it is directed toward people with perceived and proximal power: You have more followers than me, you have a blue check, your tweet is viral — thus you must be held accountable. (“Oppressing small accounts with my big account,” as the writer and Big Twitter Account Harron Walker once joked.)
I happened to be the target of the anger that day, but the next week I watched as thousands of people who love birds yelled at cat lovers on Twitter for their supposed complicity in bird death. (“We’ve also found newly creative ways to be mean,” Gorcenski observed.)
Gorcenski’s theory explains many of the messages I received: People were angry, and I was the easiest outlet for expressing that anger. “I abhor narcissists more than anything else, probably because I was raised by a malignant narcissist,” one 40-year-old Twitter user told me. “Not only did I find your parking that way to be incredibly selfish but also the ‘can’t be shamed’ attitude convinced me that you must be a malignant narcissist.” I asked if he regretted being so angry toward me, knowing that I’d seen his tweet. No, he said. It felt deserved.
Finally, I asked the user who had called me an “objectively bad person” to comment. He said the same thing as the others: It was mostly meant as a joke. And then he pointed out something I hadn’t considered. I had been the one to screenshot his tweet, and that was the tweet that went megaviral. I had many more followers than he did, and I had put him on blast to provide them with entertainment. So how was I any different from the trolls who came after me?
He got me there.