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HOW TO HANDLE ELON MUSK: USE TWITTER AND NEVER LET IT USE YOU
After years of intelligence-insulting silliness, I've learned how to utilize the site sensibly: Post published content, create a billboard, shut down riff-raff, open DMs for friends and real humans
There’s a symbolic reason why I follow only one Twitter feed — KCRW, a chill radio station that plays southern California mood music until National Public Radio leans way left and pulls a muscle. Sorry, I refuse to stoop into a shrill, vapid sandbox with juveniles, sycophants and creeps of all ages. The trick is to use Twitter but to never, ever let it use you.
And I intend to continue, even if Elon Musk doesn’t appreciate my modus operandi atop his filth-flinging, free-flag-flying fiefdom.
It took a long time to make Twitter work for me, rather than vice versa. Going back years, media executives have urged front-facing talent to tweet about sports all day, all night, every day, every night — as long as politics were off-limits, a reasonable request ignored by Jemele Hill and other naked opportunists. Companies saw a convenient marketing strategy, but all it did was undercut content they were distributing in their own publications and broadcast entities. Who spends for subscriptions when a commentator’s opinions are free on Twitter? Worse, it unleashed the look-at-me celebrity bugs deep within the insecure psyches of many media folks, who became consumed with their numbers of followers and certain luminaries who might be following them. It’s a cheap thrill known as star-f—ing.
Where were we, back inside a junior-high-school cafeteria? The raging frivolity particularly appealed to the numerous fanboy precincts of what once was regarded as sports journalism. Suddenly, Twitter wasn’t a place where you could break stories and help your employer. Nah, it was about spinning amateur comedy, spewing shallow opinions, exacting grudges and screaming at Planet Earth to push “follow” and the “like” and “retweet” functions. All of which was an extension of what the Washington Post’s Monica Hesse calls “a safe space for bros who think they’re funny.” It devolved into an embarrassing popularity contest, not an advancement of an important craft.
Because the industry wanted us to tweet, I tweeted. Where did it get me or anyone else? When I fired topical sports opinions, I was met with threats, slurs and subhuman behavior. When I was involved in a recklessly reported legal matter, some losers in the profession — trained journalists, purportedly — assassinated my character on Twitter without bothering to investigate or contact me. Some were colleagues on an ESPN show where I appeared for eight years as a daily regular. Kevin Blackistone, who writes for the Post and has taught college journalism courses, tweeted that I should stand down and accept my fate, a crackpot take I wisely didn’t follow. His was among many Twitter-published darts, joining those of sportswriters and sportscasters I’d never met. Did they have such low self-esteem that they needed to derive enjoyment and schadenfreude via tweet-bashing? Who were these random cranks? Why were they so careless and hellbent on oneupmanship that meant nothing to the universe except a few hundred people in a free-falling business? Who were they trying to impress?
Not anybody with a life. And when I prevailed in a civil proceeding that represented the core of the case — an attempt to extract money, which failed after we presented substantial discovery — where was Twitter?
Social media allowed me to separate legit journalists from the frauds. I knew what to expect from the sports riff-raff — fans are fans, some uglier than others — but if media pros couldn’t uphold the standards of truth and fairness, what was the point of on-the-job tweeting? There had to be a better, smarter way to use social media. One night, annoyed by another frat-house version of “SportsCenter” in what was designed to be ESPN’s daily digest of record, I tweeted that host Scott Van Pelt should learn the art of intellectual gravitas from a master such as Bob Costas. Or something like that. It was far from a personal attack, unlike what I’d dealt with. This was a comment on his sportscasting style, which appealed to the bro culture referenced by Hesse. He could have ignored it. He should have ignored it. But Van Pelt had thin skin that day.
He tweeted back. I returned fire. So did he. On and on this went, for too long, before I called him out for one libelous tweet and he finally repelled, probably on orders of bosses who used to be my bosses. The back-and-forth landed in the Page Six gossip gutter of the New York Post. It was my first Twitter war. And last. I remained eager to voice all views to any audience, but I realized sophisticated opinions were best suited to traditional columns — first published on a platform elsewhere — that could be posted on Twitter without the accompanying madness of 280-characters-or-less thought farts. If I wanted to voice a view about media, I’d either submit it to the Barrett Sports Media site or, on occasion, I’d e-mail a personality in private.
I stopped posting short, quick takes. I started posting finished columns and taped podcasts, a complete difference in workplace approach. Then I turned off the comments mechanism on Substack (where my columns are published), not because I can’t handle abuse or raw feedback but because I didn’t want mindless dreck to interrupt the message I was trying to convey. A generally skillful site such as The Athletic, owned by the New York Times, loses credibility when polished, well-reported stories are followed by the agendas and follies of commenters. If you want to respond to me, tweet it out from your own account. But you can’t write below my published piece. A comments section contributes to the dumbing-down of too many credible sites. A writer might be tempted to pander to commenters and dabble in clickbait, knowing corporate bosses care more about how a story is “performing” in metrics than how the content is informing the world.
So when Musk took over Twitter, I didn’t flinch. Despite his claims that the next iteration won’t be a “free-for-all hellscape,” I’m certain it soon will explode into chaos. For that reason, I’ll have to pay $7.99 monthly to keep my blue verification check mark, as it takes just one jerk to create a fake site masquerading as me; I’ve dealt with numerous bogus sites on Twitter and Facebook. I’ll stay on Musk’s version nonetheless, because I’ve figured out how to prevent lunatics from entering my space. After I post a column, I have an options page allowing me to select “Change who can reply.” I can select “Everyone,” “People you follow” or “Only you.”
Every time, I select “Only you.” So no one else can reply. Direct messages? My access is shut down to the unwashed, but DMs are ideal for conversing with friends and real human beings. This way, Twitter is a billboard for my creative work and not an insane asylum for lost souls and attention hogs. This way, if people are interested in a headline and subhead I’ve tweeted, they can push the link to that column on Substack, where my traffic is healthy (plenty of it via Twitter) even if my Twitter follower numbers have dropped from six figures — back when I was doing TV and tweeting quick takes — to four figures. This way, I’m very happy and carefree and more professionally satisfied with 8,200 followers than I was with 150,000 or whatever the ESPN-bloated total was.
This way, I am using Twitter.
And Twitter is not using me.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.