It's Perfectly Fine To Shut Up

Sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing.

Today’s Twitter main character is Liz Mair, a conservative flack who proudly talks about abusing her child by burning his stuff when he doesn’t eat. Twitter’s reaction is naturally furious - as it should be - and Nair, who has been in trouble for bad tweets before, is claiming, of course, that this is “simply a troll.” The truth of the matter may never come out - who knows if she’s trying to rile people up for the hell of it or revealing a grotesque fact of her life and then attempting to cover it up by saying, “you fell for my troll.”

“Trolling” as a term is extremely vague, meaning everything from “posting dumb stuff” to “actively trying to upset people with what you’re saying to get people to engage with you.” In most definitions, it requires you to do something to get a reaction, the digital version of being the class clown that nobody likes but everybody remembers. I’d also add that Nair likely falls into the “triggering the libs” department of posting - the “ah, I offended you! I win!” game that never seems to have a specific goal. Defector’s David J. Roth put it well when describing an anti-vaxxer march:

The reality is that nothing really happens as a result of any of these trolls. Perhaps Nair receives a visit from Child Protective Services, or she doesn’t, or she does and never tells anyone. While on the outside, it may seem as if this is a victory - the “libs” are triggered, everybody is upset with her, and all the right-wing people are very happy - it is an act of desperation, either for attention-seeking based on one’s feeling that they lack relevance, or because you need someone to edify your bizarre views.

One of the most consistent lessons I want to share from my career in public relations is that you do not need to post, and you certainly don’t need to post this. If this scenario is true, as with almost every scenario in your child’s life, you do not need to share it online, especially when it’s in the realm of punishment, and the insight you just gave in to your life is not the type of thing that’s going to engender trust or good feelings, even if someone agrees with you.

If it’s not true, the kind of attention you attract will be either negative, or the type of positive that wore a suit and carried a briefcase in middle school. The self-satisfied neo-cons that take satisfaction from hoodwinking in the least-consequential way possible are not going to bring you business, or grow your platform, or do anything for you. One might even ask what your goal is here - what’re you trying to say to the world? Do you want people to remember you as boringly antagonistic, even if they think that’s cool? What does that say about you?

Shut Up! Please!

Regardless of the truth of the situation (which we may never know), there is also something Nair could’ve done - nothing. You do not need to share every little thing you’ve done in your life, and the easiest thing in the world you can do is shut up. Just don’t say anything. One cannot shoot a gun without bullets, and any and all content you put out into the world creates, even in small increments, the foundation of what people associate with you.

I realize that I’m also a guy who will log on at 9:45 pm on a Tuesday and tweet that “I have created the Fortune 600” or “Scrappy Doo has been arrested for wire fraud,” but these are harmless jokes, things that I find funny and share with the world because they make me laugh and may do the same for others. I enjoy Twitter because it’s basically hanging out with friends and peers, making jokes, and talking about the news of the day. Crucially, I will simply choose not to post a lot of stuff - miserable complaints, problems at home, dumb stuff that could be taken out of context, or anything when I’m in a truly depressed state.

I really cannot express enough how many people screw up on social media because they don’t realize they can say nothing. Many people seem to have a terrifying instinct that they must share certain things - that their lives are so full of wonder and discovery that the world must hear about it, and that their voices are so important that they must weigh in on every subject as quickly as possible. Realistically whatever you have to say has been said before, and even if you could say it better there’s never really the need to. You could want to, and that’s fine, but depending on what the subject is you could simply choose not to say anything and also be fine.

This may seem like an obvious lesson, but so many people seem to miss it. While you can and are totally free to give your take on just about everything, the world will be fine if you don’t.

The problem is that Twitter is the purest form of the devil making work for idle hands - it is a big, open platform where something you say could be entirely ignored or spread like wildfire, screenshotted and talked about at length until it takes on entirely new meanings and consequences than you intended. It is a platform that can keep you busy for hours and hours, feeding your need for attention and validation in an unhealthy way that I absolutely love, but also recognize creates a hotbed for neuroses to develop. The near-instant feedback loop of post-and-reply that big accounts get is what leads people like David Sacks to go crazy, the huge amount of followers and their responses giving a mirage of immediate importance and prestige to every single message, no matter how petty the grievance or spurious the logic.

I have to wonder if Sacks wouldn’t have taken such a hard right turn in his life if it wasn’t for the fact that Twitter is so quick to send people validation for their ideas. Past a certain follower count, Twitter begins to reward you for every idea you give it, even if said idea is stupid or crazy. And it’s easy to conflate being right with getting a lot of engagement off of something, which is not what is happening in any of these cases.

The Poster’s Demise

I think it was my lawyer that once told me that the easiest way to stay out of trouble is to say nothing. If you’re mad, say nothing. If you’re sad, say nothing. Twitter is so satisfying when you receive a response, and creates a false air of one’s own importance that makes it feel like your every word is breaking news. This leads you to believe that you must post, and encourages the sense that you’re the protagonist of reality.

This is a classical thing that I think everybody falls into with social media. The joy of being online is that we have a sense of self that we largely create, and people have a way to continually engage with us in a way that’s totally alien to offline communication. We’re able to interact with and gain the approval of people at random and at scale, and even a little taste of that is enough to give us poster’s madness, and believe that we’re now some level of famous.

A lot of it comes down to the meaning of the word “follow.” It’s tempting to believe that someone following you means they’re waiting on your every word, versus curating their own personal feed of content that they consume at their leisure. We may believe we are the top thing that they’re looking to see - that our account is the most important one to them - versus one part of a larger buffet of people’s content.

We also forget, at times, that following is not a difficult act, nor one with a deeper meaning. Someone following you takes a single click, and may indeed mean that they would rather see your content than not, but it does not mean they’re our friend, or someone that’s excited to see what we’re up to. And when we see we have hundreds or thousands of followers, we may believe that these people are fans of ours, versus people who like us enough to hear from us occasionally.

If we make the mistake of adding more to the meaning of a follow, we begin to believe we have an “audience” and that we must perform for them, which leads to extremely bizarre and unhealthy habits. We go down dark paths trying to juice the numbers, and this line of thinking always leads to us getting ripped apart. Conversely, we may also not realize that something we don’t think is a big deal - that we got a $22 avocado toast, for example - may lead to our content going far further than we ever conceived and get people performatively mad at us as a means of performing for their perceived audience.

The thing that I keep coming back to is this idea that people have lost the ability to shut up. It isn’t a bad thing to say nothing, or not have a comment. It is totally fine for something to happen in your life, good or bad, that you do not share to social media, especially if you think the words “people are gonna wanna hear about this.” Generally when something goes wrong it’s because you kept talking when you shouldn’t have, or interjected where you shouldn’t, or talked when you weren’t prepared to talk.

This is basic crisis communications, too - if something goes wrong, you should do everything you can to be as informed as possible before you even decide to respond.

None of this is meant to be condescending or suggesting that making posts, in general, is wrong, or stupid. It’s just that so many of the mistakes that people make online come down to a simple point: they didn’t need to say what they did but they did it anyway. Nobody needed to hear about Bean Dad’s story, but he wanted to share (because he “had to” because it was “funny”) it without thinking about whether he truly had to, or how it would look outside of his own brain. Nair may have been kidding, in which case she chose to upset a bunch of people for no discernable reason other than “engagement.”

In almost all cases, nobody needs to hear what you have to say, and you should act accordingly. If you want to add stuff to social media, that’s totally fine, but always take a second to think whether the thing you’re adding may be interpreted as good, or bad, or so utterly vile that everybody gets mad at you for several days.