The Washington Post

Tweets prove we’ve always been dumb


The streets of Twitter are littered with ignorance, 140-character dum-dums that muck up the whole place before disintegrating. “IDK who Dick Clark is but he is dead,” read one last week on the news of Clark’s demise.

Only instead of getting buried in a feed, as we expect of the high-speed biodegradable material of the Internet, this tweet was plucked up by an industrious trash grabber. It was put onto a shelf with other similar tweets (“Who is Dick Clark, people?”) and placed on display at locations throughout the Web. had a curated collection of Dick Clark illiteracy; so did BuzzFeed and other sites. Each one included the Tweeter’s real handle, and each one functioned as a screen-captured gotcha. Gotcha! You’re an idiot!

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two. View Archive

The Virtual Gallery of Stupid has become the modern freak show. A few weeks ago, blogs showcased screengrabbed collections of history-challenged Tweeters (“Wait, so Titanic was a real ship?”). Buzzfeed posted “25 Extremely Upsetting Reactions to Chris Brown At the Grammys,” in which a parade of young women declared via Twitter, “I’d let Chris Brown punch me in the face.” Commenters, more than 1,500 of them, hurled tomatoes. “I hope every single one of [the women] gets their wish granted,” one responded. The women’s tweets, including their accompanying handles and profile pictures, whizzed around the Internet.

Public shaming isn’t new. See: town square, stockades. It’s not even new on the Internet — just look at the schmo whose mass-forwarded dating spreadsheet recently made him the most un-dateable man in America.

What makes these Virtual Galleries of Stupid interesting is that they preserve things designed to be ephemeral. They do not allow the biodegradable to biodegrade. It’s the equivalent of shoving a microphone under the door of a bathroom stall, taping someone murmur, “This toilet paper is confusing!” and then sending the recording to the Smithsonian.

We were stupid before the Internet. We just didn’t know how stupid we were. Or at least we didn’t archive it.

The trouble is that tweets are context-free. We can’t tell the personality of the Tweeter, we can’t see whether his feed is usually earnest or usually sardonic. We can only mock him for not knowing the identity of an antique entertainer whose New Year’s Eve hadn’t rocked in some time.

And the type of girl who tweets that Chris Brown “can beat me up all night if he wants” probably is in need of some sort of intervention — but what? Someone who suggests she deserves literal bashing doesn’t need a metaphorical one online.

The Virtual Gallery of Stupid is only useful when it’s not a gallery at all, but data for an ethnographic study. One could ask what it says about young women, for example, that slews of them would tweet this to begin with?

Collected tweets were used for this type of study last month with the release of “The Hunger Games.” A rush of fans tweeted their disappointment with the casting of a black actress — they had envisioned the character as white and admitted that they cared about her less because she had darker skin. “Why does Rue have to be black,” one wrote. “Not gonna lie kind of ruined the movie.”

Soon, a blogger began collecting the tweets en masse to force the loathsome, roachy things into the light. What resulted was public shaming, but also cultural discussion about racism and Hollywood’s default whiteness. People had created racist tweets in part, probably, because they thought these tweets would biodegrade. Instead, we all had to deal with the trash together.

Vexed or perplexed by life online? E-mail with a question, or visit the Web Hostess chat at 2 p.m. Wednesdays.

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