Nov 21, 2021 • 20M

The Kings of Film Twitter


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Sasha Stone
Essays on politics and culture from Sasha Stone's Substack. A former Democrat and Leftist who escaped the bubble to get to know the other side of the country and to take a more critical look at the left.
Episode details

Barney was mostly invisible on Film Twitter. His 3,593 or so loyal followers hung around but he couldn’t break out much farther than that. He was a no-blue-check-nobody. You have to be somebody to get one. It’s a game of status. Who has it and who doesn’t. It was just outside of his reach. Was that fame? Maybe it was.

He knew he should leave Twitter. Just walk away from it. The sick game of begging for likes, validation, attention. Wanting to matter but not knowing where to start. No one cared what he thought. NO ONE. At least not on Twitter. He had a modest following for his youtube videos. That had given birth to a modest Patreon where he collected around $700 per month. That wasn’t bad but even he couldn’t live on that. And if he couldn’t live on that he could not move out and find his own place, something he dreamed about in that middle space between sleep and waking when anything seems possible.

He also wrote film reviews that were featured on Rotten Tomatoes, and the occasional Oscar predictions on his blog Where The Sun Don’t Shine. His readership averaged roughly 1,200 eyeballs a day. Zero cash there either. Mostly his readers agreed with him. He was just not someone anyone cared about. If they thought of him at all they just saw a rando normie writing things about movies that are probably not that interesting. He knew he needed to lay out the hot takes to get engagement. But the last shred of dignity he still had left kept him from doing that. He would play it straight. People would read or not.

Barney knew he wasn’t a somebody. He also knew he probably couldn’t get a job now anyway. He was a white guy and nobody was hiring white guys. At least not straight white guys. Not cis straight white guys.

“You were just born in the wrong era,” his mother told him. She wrote something on Instagram - about how she felt sorry for him but it was his turn to step aside, to let someone else eat at the table. She taught him how to be forgiving, she said, and he turned out great, she said. She was trying to get him to put his pronouns on his bio on Twitter: He/Him. But he couldn’t bring himself to state the obvious.

He/Him turned out great. Did she really write that? She did.

Barney flicked off tweets like lit matches. Some fizzled into a puff of smoke. Some had the power to set something ablaze. His followers liked him best when he was cruel. They liked the little fires and the big blazes. He routinely deleted the tweets that had no engagement. They fizzled out. Puffs of smoke.

It wasn’t every day Barney felt powerful. In fact, most days, he struggled just to look at himself. He would deliberately look away when he approached reflected glass or mirrors. He could not stand what he’d become after a year of lockdown. He didn’t like himself before that, even after being raised in the system of the granola crunchers in Los Angeles where the only valued trait was high self-esteem. Leave no he/him chubby gifted kid behind.

Windows and mirrors were everywhere, even in places where they shouldn’t be. On closet doors, on walls, in elevators. He practiced the art of not looking. His mother sent him a lot of old photos to remind him of their life together. Single mom and her perfect son. There he was ice skating. Totally alone. Not one friend. She caught him in an expression of surprise. His arms poked out like an upright snow angel, eyes too wide, mouth hanging open, hair that she’d tucked into a wool hat so that no strands were hanging down. He looked like a snowman caught in the headlights. Or was it snow person now.

“You have a memory from 2008,” Facebook told him. “You have a memory from 2010” his phone told him. He never knew what horror would surface each time the artificial intelligence decided he should re-engage with his past. Where would all of it go when he died? Would the memory algorithm just keep churning away? Does anyone ever really die online?

There was another photo of him taking riding lessons that he’d never wanted. But his classmates were all taking them, the girls were, so his mom wanted him to take them - you know, to look kind of like a normal kid. There he was sitting on a horse, not really smiling, his hair tucked tightly into a riding helmet. His expression was only slightly less miserable than the one on that poor horse. They made him ride that poor horse. No good could come out of that. He had to pretend again. Pretend the horse was into it too, pretend he was having fun, pretend he was normal.

He had to look at that photo before quickly deleting it. So much of it was for her, his “woke” white mom. Happy mom, happy son.

Her Instagram was a collage of happy and activism. Happy activism. Hapactivism. White wine glass in the sunset happy. Picking up trash on an “Environmental racism” meet-up happy. There was that flushed look white women get when they were high on “purpose.” His mother was all in with the pussy hats and the ongoing efforts to “dismantle the patriarchy” and destroy “systemic racism” and heal the planet before it explodes in a fiery ball of carbon. Goodbye planet. Poof. Puff of smoke. She was like your textbook “libs of TikTok” who fell to her knees and screamed at the sky when Hillary lost. She laid on the couch for a year and drank a bottle of wine every night. Then came the Women’s March, the Muslim March, Kavanaugh, the hashtag resistance. And before long, her face changed. She was flushed with glassy-eyed purpose.

But she was also picking apart everything he did. Like she woke up and he was all wrong. Her perfect son is not so perfect anymore. She also worried he had a dark side. Like he was an “incel.” She thought if he put his pronouns in his bio people wouldn’t think that about him. Everything he did seemed to set her off. Most of the time they ignored each other. Barney had no escape, not since COVID locked them in together for a year. She did march in the Summer for BLM. But that didn’t count. When you have a higher purpose you can’t worry about pandemics. That was what she said.

His mother seemed to be happy if you saw it from the outside. But if you knew her you would see how fearful she was all of the time, how she could not stop staring at her phone, how her fingers flew across the keyboard when she was getting in a fight with someone online. Hours she would spend tap tap tapping. Then they’d have dinner and she’d recount the fight. She had long since stopped talking to Trump supporters but there were still “problematic” people on Facebook who would say something offensive. Hours would disappear and she’d still be staring at her phone or computer, tap tap tapping away.

But she would not show that. Instead, she would snap a picture of their plates then post it on Instagram to show just how healthy it was, what a good mom she was, how normal their lives were. NORMAL normal. Just like everyone else.

Barney never allowed her to take pictures of him now. Enough of that. He couldn’t look at himself even in a photo. Even in a selfie. When he did accidentally see himself, like a memory eruption, it scared him. His hair was still too long. His eyes looked sad and droopy. They were blue, once upon a time. Now, against the dark half-moons that shadowed them, they looked colorless.

He knew he was two people. Himself, the quiet loner whose mom loved him anyway. A supercomputer nerd who has been online his entire life. He resisted the cliche of being a porn addict and chose instead to buy vintage nudie mags off Ebay. The kind with pubic hair. Even if he did use Pornhub he would never describe himself that way online. He couldn’t be that guy, even if he was that guy.

Online, he was someone else. A different voice came out, one that was in constant reactive mode to what he saw scroll down his feed. He was outspoken and brave, even angry. One tweet would set him off on a long, threaded rant that no one would read. A few hours later, with maybe one “heart” he would delete it.

He was starting to like who he was on Twitter more than he liked his real life self, even if he knew it was an intoxicating cocktail of dopamine, hijacking the amygdala and fight or flight that was keeping him engaged. He was smart enough to know that if you are getting content for free you ARE the content. He knew that but he could not stop. His 20 or so followers who engaged with him made him feel something. He knew he just needed the one day, the one viral tweet, to become a somebody. Then he could try for the blue check.

It was an ordinary day when Barney became Twitter-famous. It all had to do with “that bitch.” Everyone knew who “that bitch” was. She was always piping up to defend bad people. She was fearless in the worst way. She couldn’t shut up. Just shut up. But instead, on a day after the shooting in some town at a massage parlor was being labeled a hate crime, he called her a racist. Not in so many words. He insinuated she had written anonymously about a Chinese film director’s movie doing better because now all of Hollywood would be sympathizing with Asians.

All he wrote was, “I think I know who said that.” Everyone on Twitter knew that he was referring to “that bitch.” Because she was the only person with balls big enough to say something like that. She denied it, of course, but she was losing hundreds of followers. It was fun watching her flip out. It felt good somewhere Barney couldn’t even pinpoint. PING!

She was like, “I can’t believe no one on Film Twitter, people I’ve known for years, wouldn’t stand up for me. I can’t believe everyone is so silent. You know I would never have said that.” They were all laughing at her desperation. Barney knew it. He also knew on Twitter it didn’t matter if something was true or not. The ritual had to play out anyway. Each person cast in their roles and everyone showcased their morality when they took a side. If they liked her tweet that revealed their own ideology. No one wanted to risk that. Liking his tweet was rewarded. CRUELTY is good on Twitter. It is the heat and the combustion that drives the engine, baby.

Then his follower count started to balloon as more and more of the blue checks RT’d his revelation about who the baddie was today. She had so many haters and they were crawling out of the darker corners of Twitter to send him screenshots of things she’d said over the 14 years she’d been on there. Would that be Barney’s fate? Would he really give so much of his life over to a stupid website that took so much and gave so little back? Except today it was giving something back. He was gaining lots of followers.

At some point during the day she went on offense. Because of course she did. She was never one to back down. She tweeted, “In the old days it used to be you’re fat, ugly and old. Come on, losers, you can do better than this.” She was putting on a strong front but it was obviously hurting her, being called a racist and a white supremacist. Barney didn’t exactly say that but others did. By the end of the day five people had contacted the movie studios that advertised on her site and told them what she said.

“It wasn’t me,” she tweeted. “I think My American Life is a great movie and worthy of winning Best Picture so why would I say otherwise?” Then she became defiant, “go ahead and take away my advertisers. Go ahead and destroy my business. Do you think that will shut me up? Think again. Keep sending me those tweets. I’m going to make you famous for them.”

She was such a dumb woman. Didn’t she know when it was time to shut up? There was no coming back from this. The tweets just kept coming and coming. By the end of the day Barney had 1,315 likes and 5,670 RTs. His follower count went from 3,593 to 5,400.

Imagine thousands of people at once engaging with a little button shaped like a heart, formerly a symbol of love, now branded as part of a hive mind agreeing on something in a day. Pressing the symbol of love on the cruelest tweets was how Twitter was winning the game. You give love for hate. You love what you hate. You erase love for hate. And all the while you signal to other people that you agree with them. With their fake love-hate .

Barney wanted to make movies. That was his dream. For now, though, he put these little montages he made on Youtube. They were sort of popular. He was trying hard to build his platform. “Your WHAT?” His father had said, with that twinge of judgment Barney hated. His father lived in Texas with his real wife and family. An affair with his mom produced Barney but he calls every once in a while out of duty. He knows nothing about the online world. He has no idea what Twitter is.

“MY PLATFORM” Barney had to say back, weakly. How could he explain what a platform was to his boomer dad? His conservative boomer dad. His boomer dad who had voted for Trump - a fact he had to most definitely keep hidden. A stain on his otherwise mostly pristine invisibleness on Twitter. All someone had to tweet was “your father voted for Trump.” Maybe he could escape it. Maybe not.

“My platform,” he would patiently explain, “is about how many people I am connected with, who know who I am, who will engage with my content.”

Engage with my content,” his father said, not even hiding his disdain.

”Okay Boomer,” Barney snapped back.

“Getting likes on youtube is not going to make you much money, Barney. I always told you to get a real job but you never listened. Your generation just wants a free ride. You complain about capitalism completely unaware that your entire life is ruled by things built by capitalism. Your phone, your laptop, your social media, you—-”

He did spend one summer with his dad and that family. They all ate at the dinner table, no cell phones allowed. The kids - a pair of blondes, a boy, and a girl, had chores they had to complete before they could spend time with their friends. They were church-going folks whose idea of a wild time was scoring a six-pack of Budweiser and drinking it by the creek before stumbling home beer drunk, which wasn’t drunk at all.

They were nice enough to him but every time he opened his mouth it was like they exchanged a glance of unspoken agreement where Barney was confirming their suspicions about him. He slept in the guest room and unfortunately heard his dad and his wife having sex in the middle of the night. Heavy breathing, grunting, and then it all went silent. Barney spent the whole time subtweeting about them to the amusement of his twenty or so followers back before Trump won and everything got too serious to do that.

No matter what else he did in life, no matter how big he got on Twitter, he was always going to measure his success by what his MAGA DAD thought. Like it mattered. He could make one anonymous phone call and send the DOJ after his dad. He was at that Stop the Steal protest on January 6th. Maybe he should let his dad know that he holds that kind of power over him. Is that a bad thing to be, he wondered, or would that make him a good citizen, helping to protect the country from terrorists.

Everything was tightening up and closing in. There was going to be a group that got to stay and a group that had to go. Barney couldn’t save his dad. They were living in two different countries now, more or less. Besides, Barney had enough to worry about.

He had about 20 DMs. One from a Slate reporter who wanted to do a story on him and how he found out Alexandria Anderson had been the person who wrote the anonymous comment about My American Life. He also saw he had a DM from Alexandria herself. She had unblocked him to send it. “Why are you doing this to me,” it asked. “What did I ever do to you?”

Barney stared at her words. He thought about any answer that would make sense to any person. He floated above himself then. He could see what he was. Staring into his phone, angry and frozen like his mother, a glow lit up his face. So this was it. This was all of it.

The next DM came from Alexandria and it had a screenshot of someone else that said, “haha, Twitter thinks that bitch wrote this but I did. More fun to watch her squirm.”

Barney was supposed to do something about that. He was supposed to fix the problem. But how could he delete a tweet that had so many likes? Heart heart heart heart. Love hate love.

No, he would not delete the tweet. He would answer the Slate reporter’s DM. He would do the interview. He would ride it until the wheels fall off. Maybe then he could get verified. A real blue check next to his name on Twitter. All he had to do was just finish the day. That’s what everyone on Twitter did. They just finished the day. Let the truth sort itself out later.

Barney wanted to take a walk. He could hear his mom furiously typing in the other room. It was getting dark. No dinner yet. Was there still a world outside? He didn’t know. He walked to the door, put his hand on the knob, and stood there, his heart racing, his cheeks flushed, his head swimming. No, he thought. Not just yet. And he went back to his room and picked up his phone.