The Bean That Broke Twitter’s Back
I spent the holidays off of Twitter. If I wasn’t a writer on the internet—who writes about the internet—I would have given up the website for good by now. I started posting in earnest in 2015, when I had just graduated college and moved to New York City to be a freelance writer. Gaining social capital on Twitter was the best way to get professional capital in digital media, and it worked! Unfortunately, it means I’m now chained to the website until people find a new place to talk about news. But for many of you reading this, it’s not too late to log off. And after what happened with Bean Dad over the weekend, I must implore you to do it.
I don’t even want to explain Bean Dad because it’s so stupid. But then again, that’s exactly the point. In the dead air between Christmas and the return to the work week, an otherwise unremarkable thread by musician John Roderick, who deprived his 9-year-old daughter of baked beans until she could figure out how to use a can opener herself, went viral. People accused him of abuse, of starving his own child. Roderick attempted to engage, until it all got so bad he had to deactivate. He issued an apology on Tuesday morning, both for the thread, and for some offensive tweets that users dug up in their quest to take him down. A song he wrote was pulled as the theme song for a popular podcast. All over beans.
just in case anyone is wondering what this whole "bean dad" this is about, here's the context (i screenshotted it before the acc/tweets were deleted) pic.twitter.com/8kiAFYheCb— Tsusifec (@Tsusifec) January 4, 2021
This isn’t to trivialize his offensive tweets, which included racial slurs. But that isn’t what provoked the outrage that eventually drove Roderick off the site. Instead, it was the result of an exhausting pattern that social media helped create.
Look at it this way: If Roderick had told this same story to me and my friends IRL, I might have turned to one of them on the car ride home and said something like, “Hey, what was with that weird story John told about beans?” But Twitter isn’t designed for that. Twitter is designed for attention. It’s designed to reward the person who can effectively “yes and” one statement into an even more outlandish one. It incentivizes the hot take, the well actuallys, and most of all, the pile-ons—regardless of subject. Which is why Garbage Day writer Ryan Broderick has repeatedly warned that the app is on its last legs.
“It means that context collapse has gotten so bad and the scale of your trending algorithms are so completely out of whack that a total moron tweeting about beans can create the same level of discussion within your community as the Trump Georgia call,” he wrote in his January 4 newsletter. “It means that your users are so desperate for your made up internet points that they would consider turning an extremely mundane story about using a can opener into a TWENTY-THREE tweet thread and are also so vicious and insane and bored that they would turn that thread about beans into a national scandal.”
We’ve seen this same thing happen an exhausting number of times. A bad tweet makes someone the main character of the day until they get bullied off the site. Or: A good tweet makes someone a hero until another user, seeking their own bit of attention, digs deep enough to find the thing that makes the hero Actually Bad (a term known as milkshake duck-ing). Then they also get bullied off the site.
Any thought, picture, anecdote, or sneeze that happens on Twitter is a magnet for every single opinion on it. It would be like if I did my hair in a new style, and then went one by one to every person on the street and asked them what they thought. There’s going to be at least one person who doesn’t like it—and on Twitter they’re incentivized to be as loud as possible about it.
“No matter how many followers a person has, they are a person, and your bullshit comment might make them not sleep, be mean to their partner, distract them during dinner,” food writer Alicia Kenney wrote in a recent newsletter about going on a Twitter break. “Is that the intention? What is your purpose when you do that, if you do? I have my own history of subtweeting—it’s a sick compulsion. If shit isn’t personal, if shit isn’t actively evil, it isn’t your business.”
And in the case of Bean Dad, it wasn’t evil. He of course wasn’t starving his daughter. He was just doing a “bit,” a cartoonish comedy riff on one’s personal foibles that Twitter also incentivizes.
“I didn’t share how much laughing we were doing, how we had a bowl of pistachios between us all day as we worked on the problem, or that we’d both had a full breakfast together a few hours before,” Roderick wrote in his apology. “Her mother was in the room with us all day and alternately laughing at us and telling us to be quiet while she worked on her laptop. We all took turns on the jigsaw puzzle.”
But he also acknowledges that the thread could have reminded people “very viscerally of abuse they’d experienced at the hand of a parent.” As for the offensive tweets, he says he “thought then that being an ally meant taking the slurs of the oppressors and flipping them to mock racism, sexism, homophobia, and bigotry.” Now he knows that’s “a lazy and damaging ideology.”
I don’t know what else we can ask from Bean Dad—or what purpose any of this had in the first place. Are we better for it? Is Bean Dad better for it? I don’t really think so. All I feel is a profound exhaustion with the predictable and broken nature of how social media has encouraged regular people to treat other regular people online. This won’t be the last pile-on on Twitter by any stretch of the imagination, but it could be the last one you have to witness. Log off. If not for yourself, do it for those of us who can’t.