Whether you’re looking to recruit followers or itching for attention, entertaining Twitter users will get you noticed. According to Business Insider, regularly publishing interaction-provoking tweets will give your online popularity the boost you desire. And when your life is lacking in the interest department, re-creating the fight you see in a parking lot or the creepy pickup fail you hear at a supermarket is a tempting alternative. You can tweet an exchange in real time and know that, eventually, someone will hear you chirp. Unfortunately, the thrill of sharing riveting stories doesn’t always make up for accompanying doubts. After all, is it right to share, even worse, trivialize someone else’s private discussion?
This is just the sort of question raised after comedian and writer Kyle Ayers live-tweeted a breakup for his followers. Ayers treaded the fine line between insensitivity and entertainment when he plugged away on his phone, rushing to amuse his followers with the argument he was witnessing. The relationship-ending fight was low-hanging fruit, an escalating dispute between two seemingly young adults who made flighty comments and managed to fit “like” into the most serious of sentences. With a combination of eavesdropping and Twitter, Ayers was able to get a quick laugh from his online audience by posting what he heard. Like a true entertainer, he connected with his followers as he shared a relatable, emotional event, cropped it and highlighted its humor. In the process, he turned someone’s anxiety-inducing experience into a mix of Twitter sound bites that made a fuming, flustered couple sound less pained and more bumbling.
When the girl, alternately referred to as “Rachel,” asked her boyfriend whether they were going to live together, he clumsily replied, "Yeah but what is, like, living together? Like what's an apartment mean? You know what I'm saying?" And when Rachel told him that she couldn’t continue with the relationship, his response was, “Are we getting a pizza or what? I don’t mean to change the subject but are we?” The full exchange made for a good laugh if you were in need of some comedic relief — unless, of course, it was your breakup being discussed on CNN and dramatized in a video on New York Magazine’s website.
So while Ayers’ tweets weren’t egregiously mean, and he didn’t identify the couple or pinpoint the rooftop, he did share a distressing, personal moment that wasn’t his to share. And he shared it with the Internet. It’s one thing to laugh at yourself by making light of your personal problems, but this wasn’t his drama, and he didn’t let the couple decide who got to hear about it and which snippets of the breakup were publicized.
When someone tweets a conversation, the story becomes a customized art piece. In this case, Ayers turned the argument into entertainment by downplaying its seriousness and leaving out details such as hurt glances or wavering voices. Because he stuck to tweets that portrayed the argument’s cliché and flighty nature, it was easy to laugh about the situation without feeling much guilt. Readers empathized just enough to tune in, but not enough to think about the invasiveness and, well, let’s just say it, complete creepiness of tuning in, uninvited, to someone else’s drama. We’ll never know whether Rachel shed any tears or Rob felt horrible about hurting Rachel, but the tweets would not have been as funny if we did. We might not have meant any harm, but we did enjoy the couple’s dirty laundry until the final disconcerting tweet: “Thanks for following #roofbreakup.”
Ayers stands by his tweets and defends his updates by saying that he didn’t reveal much about the couple. “I didn’t live-tweet a couple’s private conversation; I live-tweeted any two people’s breakup conversation,” he writes in a CNN opinion piece. To some extent, he has a point. As far as we know, he made the whole thing up, and some of us are getting high and mighty over nothing. He is, after all, an aspiring entertainer. With so little revelation, he gave his followers what so many of them crave — being in on a dramatic secret. We got to witness universal relationship pains and observe how others dealt with their versions of our emotional roadblocks. We even got a good laugh out of it and began to doubt whether our relationship traumas, which are often more common than we think, really deserved our distress in hindsight.
But despite Ayers’ conviction that his tweets were innocent, there’s something that just doesn’t feel right about publishing personal conversations, especially ones that are not our own. As much as I enjoy the genius of scornful tweets and mock newspaper feeds, I can’t help but wonder whether it’s right to make someone feel foolish for the sake of entertainment. Legally speaking, retweeting something you overhear in a public space is typically fair game, but some compassion is in order because no one’s filter is foolproof.
Even those who eavesdrop for a living can forget that someone may always be listening. In October, Tom Matzzie, previous director of the political group MoveOn.org, was riding the Amtrak when he overheard former NSA director Michael Hayden chatting about politics and surveillance on his cellphone. It was almost too perfect. After listening in for several minutes, he began live-tweeting the conversation, pointing out that Hayden made “disparaging quotes about admin,” and that he “sounds defensive.”
Unlike most of us, Hayden had people watching out for him, and someone tipped him off about the affair. He stood up, approached Matzzie and asked him if he wanted a real interview. When Matzzie told him that he wasn’t a reporter, Hayden responded with an increasingly self-evident truth: “Everybody’s a reporter.”
Your chances of getting attention with an equally juicy story are slim, but that doesn’t mean you have to take cheap shots to come close. Users who rely on Twitter for promotional entertainment can still get personal, even laugh at others with some sensitivity if they are discerning enough to choose the right phrases and pick the right subjects. Achieving this balance is possible, but people have to be willing to pass on some easy laughs and perfect dramas.
If done right, revealing tweets may look like those of Justin Halpern, a comedian who gained moderate fame, three million followers and two book contracts after starting a Twitter page about his dad’s grumpy quotes. Even before he published his popular “Sh*t My Dad Says” (with his father’s permission), Halpern knew what was fair game, as do most people who are willing to think about it. His quotes included plenty of curse words and more than enough crassness to embarrass a 73-year-old doctor of nuclear medicine who cares about public opinion. Luckily, Halpern’s dad doesn’t care about public opinion, and the page paints him as someone who mocks the world more successfully than the world could mock him.
Halpern secretly published his dad’s comments without making him the butt of our jokes, and it made him no less interesting. He shares how his father aptly taught him to deal with visiting family members by asking, “What the [heck] makes you think Grandpa wants to sleep in the same room as you?” and how he managed to reassure him by saying, “Get married when you want. Your wedding’s just one more day in my life I can’t wear sweat pants.” Plus, we could all learn a thing or two about parenting from his little nuggets of wisdom. After all, “A parent’s only as good as their dumbest kid.”
It’s more than possible to entertain followers with private conversations, as long as you’re selective about stories and picky about your portrayal of others. That means having to miss out on some surefire hits, which is not a sacrifice all Twitter users are willing to make. It takes more effort, more talent and more willpower to say no to tweets that will grab people’s attention at the cost of others. But that is public privacy and respectable entertainment at its best.