Books & arts
The memory hole
Tweets feel like conversation but are judged—and punished—like writing
Things were looking rosy for Alexi McCammond. Black, female and 27, she was named editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue after a successful stint as a political correspondent for Axios, a Washington-insider news outfit. Teen Vogue had become an unlikely voice of resistance in the Donald Trump era, combining makeup tips with arguments for universal child care. Ms McCammond was to lead the magazine into the Biden years.
But a newsroom rebellion ended her tenure before it began. A group of employees wrote a letter protesting against her appointment because of several tweets she had written ten years earlier, when she was herself a teen. In them Ms McCammond reported Googling how to avoid waking up with “swollen, Asian eyes”. She complained about the lack of an explanation for a poor mark in chemistry: “thanks a lot stupid Asian T.A. (teaching assistant)”. She had apologised for these comments in the past, but a killing in Georgia on March 16th, in which six of the eight victims were Asian women, made them look even worse. Two days later Ms McCammond took to Twitter again—to say that she had agreed to renounce the Teen Vogue job.
Hers is hardly the first career to be capsized by old tweets. Neera Tanden was supposed to become Joe Biden’s head of the Office of Management and Budget. But as boss of a centre-left think-tank she had written tweets calling Republican senators “the worst”, a “fraud”, “Voldemort” and suchlike. She too was denied her new position. James Gunn, director of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” superhero films, was fired (then rehired) for tasteless jokes he had made—also a decade and more ago—about paedophilia and the 9/11 attacks. This is to say nothing of the less prominent folk shamed in their communities for offensive tweets.
Why do tweets keep undoing people? The answer may lie in their hybrid nature. In form, the language of social media is written—but in style, it is far more like speech. Twitter’s character limit encourages short bursts that resemble talking, and are then threaded together in quasi-conversations. People write them as they speak, using sentence fragments, slang, non-standard spellings (to reflect pronunciation) and so on. Dialectologists use Twitter to study shifts in vocabulary, grammar and usage; research shows that the language of tweets closely mimics oral chatter. Finally, Twitter rewards the same qualities that are prized in speech: spontaneity, personality and wit.