Remember how Twitter felt before a TV loudmouth with no political experience ran for president? Before a thin-skinned narcissist assumed command of America’s nuclear arsenal? It was a place where people went to complain, sure, and to express their anxieties, just like now – but the complaints and the anxieties were smaller back then, at a human rather than global scale. It was less terrifying, less exhausting.
Since Twitter displays the most recent tweets at the top of the page, and since the president commits cataclysmic geopolitical gaffes at breakneck pace, the social network has become an endless waterfall of apocalyptic news. Refresh: He instituted a slipshod Muslim ban. Refresh: He mishandled confidential intel at his gaudy Florida country club. Refresh: He responded to a Jewish reporter’s concerns about anti-Semitism by braying about his middling electoral victory.
The accumulation of so many far-reaching offenses creates a sort of psychological gravity, a grim neutron star curving the public consciousness inexorably back into its orbit.
Looking for respite I asked anyone and everyone listening on Twitter to tell me about the irritating minutia of their lives; grievances that, while real and valid, lacked the magnitude of, say, a potential nuclear holocaust.
The chance proved appealing. Almost immediately the responses arrived in my notifications, shining spotlights on life’s annoying vagaries.
A cellphone user groused about a messaging faux pas: “Sometimes i try to send a DM and have bad reception. it doesn’t send. i try again and it sends twice and i look dumb as hell.”
A woman experienced a pang of beverage regret: “my bf said he was gonna pick up milk and asked if i needed anything and i said no, but now i wish i asked for coke.”
A woman railed against nocturnal fauna: “the squirrels in the attic … wake me up like clock work at 1am and 7:45am every day.”
An NPR listener confessed his displeasure: “Even though I theoretically support public radio, I fly into a blind rage whenever they do a pledge drive.”
Trends emerged: indolent pets, people idling in front of doors. I did my best to honor each person’s grievance by writing a small missive of agreement and support. The task was more fun and easier than I expected. What better way to be positive than by tag-teaming with someone else’s negativity? Even when I didn’t understand the particulars, the underlying themes shone through: corporate apathy, the mysteries of unresponsive technology, social graces being trod upon.
Soon enough, the original request gained momentum. A few replies became dozens, then hundreds, then 1,000.
I suppose I was offering escapism; if you’re moaning about, say, expired coupons instead of deportations, you might feel a momentary sense of normality. But I believe the larger appeal was in the prospect of receiving a reply. I tweeted my commitment to answer all of the messages I received, and that promise is what snowballed the original request into a days-long project. This says nothing about my skill as either a writer or therapist, but speaks to something deeper.
A recent story about the volunteers in President Obama’s mailroom got to the heart of the matter. Regardless of what the citizens were writing about – the Affordable Care Act, an upcoming wedding, fear of the future – the staff responsible for reading and responding said that the universal sentiment was a desire to be heard, to feel as though their voices mattered. A reply, whether it’s from the White House or a nobody comedian in Los Angeles, has an indelible, alleviating effect.
In the vast wasteland of the internet, someone is hearing you. Someone is connecting to you. Someone is taking your concerns seriously.
“I hate everyone!” wrote one malcontent. “That means there’s no escape from being annoyed by fellow humans – my condolences!” I replied.
I am still in the process of responding to messages. Grievances are still trickling in. Followers with common complaints are tweeting at one another in solidarity. The process has left me in awe of the power of personal connection, at the ability of a decidedly average schmo to attract the attention of thousands, just by listening. The brief respite I sought has turned into a thousand friendly notes. It is touching, invigorating and inspiring all at once. To paraphrase William Blake, it’s possible to see the world in a grain of sand even if that grain gets caught in your freaking eye.
McCauley is a writer and comedian in Los Angeles.