Antisocial Club

May 2, 2024 • Louie Mantia

If you’ve ever replied to me on social media, you might have also received a reply from me telling you to can it. I’ve got a bad attitude about this, I’m stubborn about it, and I’m not proud of it.

I grew up under unique conditions, just like you did. We differ because of our personal experiences. I can point to a lot of my early life experiences and identify why I behave the way I do today.

If you’re anywhere around my age, you may have also grown up with forums and AOL Instant Messenger. If you’re a little older than me, perhaps IRC or Usenet. If you’re younger than me, maybe Instagram or TikTok. To me, these generalized eras represent different human behavior.

I don’t want to speak too much about the eras I don’t identify with, but for public chat, forums were the brand of world wide web that I grew up with. It was half-closed, half-open. There were lots of rules, and people frequently got on each others’ nerves. It was a community of people who liked the same things, even if not for the same reason.

For private chat, AOL Instant Messenger was the law of the land. At least, within my circle of friends. You were online or offline. If you were online, you could be away and have away messages. If you are part of this era, you already know this. Was this the best time for the web? I don’t know. But it was the time that formed me.

These two things reflected two kinds of conversation on the Internet. The public variety had community rules. The private type had personal rules. Breaking a rule in the public space might net you a suspension or ban. Breaking a rule in the private space might cost you a friendship. Social media changed all of this by having a forum so big that the small community rules didn’t work anymore and the private rules were similarly discarded because you were interacting with strangers in the same venue as friends.

In 2006, when I was 18, that’s when I joined Twitter. There were a lot of older people using it, and certainly most Twitter users came to the platform much later. It’s hard to describe to people who maybe weren’t there at the time, but using Twitter was much more about posting status messages than having conversation. It was regularly referred to as a microblogging service.

Twitter blended a little bit of that forum space with a little bit of that AOL Instant Messenger space. It was a smallish community of people (everyone there was a total nerd, myself included), all just posting status messages about what we were doing.

In a way, it was just a subset of what Facebook was already offering. At the time, Facebook had photo albums and people posting comments directly to people’s “walls.” If you posted a status message, people could reply to it.

But Twitter? Only status messages. No replies. No photo sharing. Definitely no video. No quote tweets or retweets. No threads at all. Just 140 characters, because that was the limit for SMS texts.

You could not post a photo without posting a link to it. You could not have a conversation with anyone separate from your public timeline. Because of these limitations, we mostly just talked about what we were eating. To no one in particular. We just sent text into vast nothingness.

My earliest tweets literally started with a verb, most often “is.” As in [Louie Mantia] “is excited that he got Pirates of the Caribbean 2 on DVD with a Jack Sparrow bobblehead.” That should date itself quite easily, while also demonstrating the trivial nonsense that the platform used to be about.

The concept of replying only began two months before I started tweeting. Robert Anderson—a designer I worked with at Square—sent the first one to his brother Buzz in November 2006, eighteen years ago.

What is often overlooked when discussing this fact is that it was not a feature. Robert placed a space after the @ symbol, before Buzz’s username, buzz. You couldn’t click on that, and you still can’t today.

At this moment in time, Robert’s tweet wouldn’t have been delivered to Buzz. It wouldn’t have appeared underneath Buzz’s original post. It was only part of Robert’s timeline and the live, public timeline (everyone in the world). Buzz would only have seen it alongside every other tweet in his timeline, and everyone else who followed Robert would have seen this post to Buzz, whether or not they followed Buzz.

And as far as apps are concerned, the first Twitter app for macOS (Twitterrific) didn’t exist yet. iPhone wasn’t released yet. And so you can also count out push notifications, which weren’t officially a feature until a few years later. That means there was no sense of a notification badge or unread status at all.

Simply put, Twitter was not designed as a conversational tool. Robert was shouting into the void hoping that Buzz would hear him. Just some text floating in the ether.

Almost two years later in May 2008, Twitter added the @reply feature. It was only then that anyone started to suggest this could be a tool for public conversation.

I’m saying all this because at 18 years old, this was my online experience. This is the “norm” I grew up with.

I won’t detail the remaining history of Twitter, but over the last 15-or-so years, I’ve seen how features like replying and retweeting have been used both positively and negatively.

I’ve witnessed the sharp increase in total users on Twitter, and with that came a lot more interaction. I think it’s safe to say that most of those interactions are nonconsensual.

I don’t mean to say that some people don’t like them, or even that most people don’t like them. But I rarely see people seeking permission before replying or retweeting. It’s not required, and it’s not part of the culture to ask.

When I was much younger, if someone came to me to tell me something they’re struggling with, I assumed it was to seek assistance. I’ve since realized this is a poor assumption, and now I try—though I still fail—to ask if they’re venting or looking for help. Because if you start offering assistance to someone who doesn’t want it, you will seem like you’re misreading their intent. And it’s very likely there will be some ill feelings about that.

You may also feel hurt that your assistance is not wanted and make the mistake that this feeling trumps their feeling of you not providing what they want or need, which is for you to listen.

As I get older, I realize this applies to a lot more than that. While we often seek conversation with others, I think many of us are familiar with the feeling of simply wanting to be seen and heard. We’re not always looking for a response. We’re not even necessarily looking for validation. We just need to get something off our chest.

For me, Twitter was the shortest route to get something I wanted to say out. While blogging was something I had done before, it was (is?) more cumbersome. While I controlled my blog and the lack of comments on it, I don’t control the social media landscape, and people are bound to want to say something in response to something I wrote.

I understand the impulse. I fully recognize the urge to reply to something someone said as if it were said directly to you. But outside of the venue of a personal chat, things people say in public—on Twitter or Mastodon—are not said directly to you. They are shouted into the void.

Conversing with one or two people may already be more than what some people are comfortable with handling. But some social media posts can reach hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people.

Imagine venting. If you’re venting, even one person replying to you can feel as awful as it does when someone does this in person. How about two people? A dozen? A hundred? Imagine how overwhelming and frustrating it can feel to have that many people misread your intent.

I’ve lived long enough to see how social media pressure can completely destroy people in a multitude of ways. I’ve seen people run away from it or make their profiles private when things get to be too much. Is that the outcome we want?

We were never meant to have the ears of so many people. We were never meant to speak directly to any one person in the world at our own whim. This is a very classic “with great power comes great responsibility” moment for us.

Am I the only one who finds it ridiculous we have created methods to demand attention from each other? When a social media reply is capable of creating a notification badge in the recipient’s app, tell me how it differs from email, which many people have grown to hate for this reason.

I know I’m not alone. There’s an incredible post from Jamie Zawinski, which has this gem:

There is no way to delete a reply to your post. Let's say I post a zinger and then someone replies with a racism. I can block that person, and I won't see it any more, but the 10,000 people who follow me will still see it when they click on my post. It means that I have given that terrible person a boost in reach that I cannot revoke. It's like having dogshit on your shoe that everyone at the party can smell but you.

They continue:

In other words: how it should work is, I own the replies to my post. Just like how it works on my blog. On my blog, I get to moderate according to my whim and don't owe anyone access to my platform. If you have something to say that I don't choose to boost to my followers, you can get your own blog (or top-level post).

And Dan Hon made the popular “do not reply” cards. The perceived necessity—even if in jest—of “do not reply” highlights something that I think is worth mentioning: on social media, it is the burden of everyone who doesn’t want a reply to say so rather than anyone else to ask before they do. On “social media,” the expectation is that you have to accept replies from anyone in the world.

I commend you if can easily ignore unwanted replies. I envy you. I can’t do that.

Contrary to what you may think—or even what I might say in the heat of the moment—I actually don’t want to block or mute people. I want to talk with them. I just want them to ask first when there’s no relationship between us, when there’s no rapport. In the absence of people asking before they engage further, I find myself asking them to remove me from a reply chain or to cease replying to me.

No matter how I say it, that always seems to sound shocking to others. The reaction is always poor. If I say I don’t want replies, some people will resort to attacks, question the purpose of me being here at all, or even start subtweeting (subtooting?) about me.

No one ever thinks they’re being inconsiderate by replying when I don’t want replies. In many cases, they think it’s funny I get worked up about this or that I’m weird for having this boundary on something called “social” media, which they are always keen to point out.

I’ve come to realize that some people think if you’re not okay with the idea of a total free-for-all on social media, then maybe you shouldn’t be there at all. The only people allowed to post are people who are willing to receive replies.


In the course of human history, we’ve never had anything like this. We only relatively recently gained this ability to leave notes attached to anything anyone ever says. Think about that. You can pin a little note on someone else’s, publicly, and it will stay there whether they like it or not. And they’ll be alerted that you did it.

Yes, there are lots of great ways to use that functionality. But it’s worth noting that not all of it is welcome, good, healthy, civil, or warranted. I absolutely understand wanting to yell at a politician in the replies. What I can’t understand is wanting the ability to do that to anyone. But that’s what we have now. That’s the functionality built-in. Of course, not everything is that bad. Sometimes it’s just unwanted.

While some people sign up to be publicly scrutinized or to engage in public debate and discussion, not everyone who signs up for social media is signing up for that. (Correct me if I’m wrong, I never read the Terms & Conditions.)

Maybe it’s time to think about what consent means with regard to conversation online. It’s one thing to post a comment to your own timeline. You’re shouting into the void and to people who follow you (which is a fairly clear mark of consent). It’s totally different when you start involving others against their will, when you attach your comment to theirs, or when you leave someone’s username in an endless reply chain that they’re no longer a part of, littering what could have been a useful “notifications” section but is now just a long string of 2 other people talking for a few hours after you bounced.

As with all things, context matters. Read the room. Friends have very different rules and expectations than strangers do. Is it wild to consider that? I don’t think so.

I think it’s clear that I struggle with the burden of how social media is often overwhelming. I get frustrated easily about replies because it feels like I am constantly defending my boundary. It hurts when people laugh at the notion or say I’m “silly” for holding this seemingly unreasonable position of “no, I actually don’t want to talk with you, please untag me from future replies.”

I think that if we’re going to have a website that allows anyone in the world to speak words into each others’ ears, I would like the ability to maybe, sometimes, perhaps, on occasion …turn that off. I don’t want to have to sacrifice my mental health, time, or attention to merely exist on social media. Does anyone?

I want to be there like I always have been, but I recognize it’s changed around me. People’s differing understandings of what is “normal” on services like these are reflections of the time they came into it and the experiences they’ve had in their lives.

I know I can’t change everyone’s behavior. But my one wish is that there was a greater understanding that replies—and the social pressure around them—can be very overwhelming to some people, even if you delight in them.

I love to talk with people. Maybe you do too. But let’s not pretend you like talking to everyone, all the time. We all have limits, and I think it’s reasonable to have boundaries.

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