Jon Lee Anderson, a writer for a weekly magazine called the New Yorker, got angry on Twitter today. A reader with the Twitter name of Mitch Lake (@mlake9) had tweeted at Anderson (@jonleeanderson) to dispute a claim of fact in Anderson's online story about the death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. Anderson had written that Chavez had left his country as "one of the world's most oil-rich but socially unequal countries," and Lake countered that in fact Venezuela was the second-least unequal country in the Americas.
Lake was rude, using the internet idiom "wtf," which is an abbreviation for "What the fuck?" Whatever high ground may have belonged to Anderson, however, turned into a mudslide within the next 140 characters:
@mlake9WTF indeed. You, little twerp, are someone who has sent 25,700 Tweets for a grand total of 169 followers. Get a life.— Jon Lee Anderson (@jonleeanderson) March 8, 2013
There's probably a useful conversation to be had about Jon Lee Anderson's recent coverage of Venezuela and Chavez. His work is marked by weird internal stress points of fact, where the story he seems to be trying to tell about Chavez fails to align with the history of the country. In his January profile of Venezuela and its then-dying president, "Slumlord," he described Chavez's Caracas as a tragically fallen city, but located the "height of its allure" in 1983, or 16 years and six presidencies before Chavez ever took power. Likewise the Tower of David, the unfinished high-rise overrun by squatters that he presents as the monument to the Chavez era, was by Anderson's own account aborted in 1993—still six years and a few presidencies before Chavez—during a collapse of the country's banking system. Given the amounts of atavistic propaganda in American news coverage of Chavez, it felt as if Anderson hadn't quite gotten himself clear on the question of how broken Venezuela really is, or to what extent that brokenness is Chavez's work.
But we're not having that conversation right now, because Lake was too busy telling Anderson to "fact check your article dick" and Anderson was telling Lake to "clean your mouth out" (and, again, to "get a life"), and then they were both sighing to their respective friendly Twitter audiences: "Depres 2 c how pple want 2heckle w/out rreading"; "I guess people don't like to be called out when they make a mistake."
The trouble here is that though Twitter can be a great medium for getting into fights with people, Jon Lee Anderson went in with a common and damaging misapprehension of the rules. He was the guy who asks, Don't you know who I am? And the answer to that question, on Twitter, is: You're one more dipshit with a Twitter account. Nothing more, nothing less.
The internet in general and Twitter in particular are a challenge to people who've succeeded under older standards of prestige. All these bloggers and amateurs and God knows who, throwing words around—throwing words at you, for pity's sake. Many of them are genuinely rude and dumb and unqualified, by most standards, to say anything to you. Yet you Twitter-search your own name, and there they are, taking it in vain. Who are they?
Answer: They also are dipshits with Twitter accounts. You are free to ignore them. It is entirely within your power to ignore them. You are also free to retweet them, without comment, and let the world judge. You are free to disagree with them politely or severely or obscenely, as the mood strikes you, and have a nice dialogue or brawl, as much as your writerly powers will allow. You are free to block them, even, if you want to formally concede a piece of the internet to them.
What you can't do is appeal to your credentials. If Jon Lee Anderson wants to exercise his superiority over Mitch Lake, he can write a blog post for the New Yorker and have it read by thousands of people. He can't do it by telling Mitch Lake on Twitter that Mitch Lake doesn't matter, that he's a "little twerp." Get a life? He's typing on Twitter ... just like you are. One hundred forty characters apiece. No difference there.
Reminding Lake that he only had 169 Twitter followers was the saddest gambit of all. Jon Lee Anderson has 17,866 followers. And Kim Kardashian has, as I write this, 17,489,892 followers. That is: Jon Lee Anderson is 1/1,000 as important on Twitter, by his own standard, as Kim Kardashian. He is 10 times closer to Mitch Lake than he is to Kim Kardashian.
Or at least he was before he called Lake a twerp. Now Lake is up to 210 followers.
[Image by jim Cooke.]