In Defense of Twitter’s ‘Reply Guy’

Online harassers have poisoned Twitter, but we can still find space for normal conversation, right?

Photo: filadendron/Getty Images

Hello. My name is Andrew, and I’m a Reply Guy.

Twitter is my life’s one major addiction. The same way gambling addicts feed quarters into a slot machine hoping for a jackpot, I refresh my timeline for breaking news, calls for pitches, snarky jokes, and other miscellaneous inanities more often than I care to admit. (There’s actually plenty of research into this comparison if you’re looking to pity me even more.)

Until recently, a browser tab was almost always open to my timeline while I worked my dead-end day job, and my phone still makes the app all too available for distractions throughout the day. It adds up to an embarrassingly large amount of time that I could otherwise spend, you know, productively. Perhaps, dare I say, even happily. But, of course, I don’t. I just keep tweeting into the void along with everyone else.

I also still reply to people. A lot. Mostly to people I know who follow me back, but often to larger names and personalities I’ve never met but one-way follow, thus technically (and horrifically) fulfilling the requirements of the much-maligned Reply Guy.

The Reply Guy moniker, we are told, is something we never want bestowed on us for our online sins. At best, it implies a pathetic, if harmless, combination of desperation, entitlement, and self-delusion. At its worst, it encapsulates not only all of the above, but also harassment horndog vibes that can quickly go from uncomfortable to downright abusive in less than 280 characters.

How did we get to this point, where those using a platform designed for conversation are so wary of human interaction?

Most of the discussion surrounding the Reply Guy concept has focused on the latter — those men who respond in an overly familiar manner to women they don’t know — and how pathetic, annoying, and thirsty it is. (Those opinions are, in fact, correct. Do not be that guy.) But the online stigma around RGs often also extends to anyone replying to people they don’t know in real life, especially public figures. The abusive kind of RG rightfully deserves our scorn — “don’t harass women in person or online” should be a pretty self-evident moral code. The other variety, however, I’ll cop to fully, and you know what? I make no apologies.

So, how did we get to this point, where those using a platform designed for conversation are so wary of human interaction? I mean, other than the more obvious reasons. It’s a far cry from when I first logged on to Twitter almost a decade ago. It was a simpler time; my feed was filled mostly with comedians’ 140-character non sequiturs, retweeted memes, a far more benign version of “manic Kanye,” and noticeably fewer racist ghouls.

It was the one app I used with any regularity as I finished college and wisely entered the post-Great Recession labor market as a… new writer with a religious studies degree. I knew the absurdity of my prospects at the time, but I was 21 years old and open to anything that paid the bills, which is how I found myself working in libraries.

I loved working at my college town’s small library since it hinged upon human interaction. I enjoyed helping patrons, recommending books, showing people the basics of how to use a computer. There was also a lot of downtime, and I filled it by using Twitter to make my first connections online with writers and editors.

Like many writers of my generation, Twitter quickly became indispensable to my work. It’s how I got some of my first gigs, and how I promoted that work to gain the attention of other editors. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it was decent enough. Fast forward a few years, and I think we know how things have gone for us as an interactive society.

Today, it’s easy to transform into a jaded tech-nihilist on Twitter, and even easier to get stuck in this state, endlessly hate-refreshing your timeline for a dopamine jolt. Even if you somehow manage to construct an impenetrable social media bubble of baby animal videos and RIP Vine compilations, there’s no escaping Twitter’s many inherent sins. It’s become a digital cesspool frequented by Gamergate trolls, shit-stirring bots, and crypto-Nazis using the glow of computer monitors to obscure their grotesqueness.

People tweet into their self-constructed, algorithm-enhanced echo chambers, venturing outside only occasionally to “own a lib” or shame a particularly egregious Trumpist enabler, to varying degrees of success. To cap it all off, we are rendered into profitable datasets for a private corporation run by a billionaire who looks like he just wandered out of House Stark.

Pair all of this with a noticeable rise in thirst RGs — seriously, guys, she isn’t interested — and it’s easy to see why people have grown weary of the strangers interjecting themselves into their replies. In stigmatizing unprovoked responses of pretty much any kind, though, something human begins to fade from an already dehumanizing platform.

There’s also an underlying hypocrisy to complaining about the (non-harassing) people in one’s replies — it’s like professional musicians who say they don’t make music “for their fans.” The denial of the public, performative aspect of Twitter is a weak cop-out to make one seem too cool to care.

I’m not debating that Twitter is almost certainly an unredeemable cesspool. And it’s true that not everything said, digitally or in person, necessitates recognition. But casting such a wide net to scorn RGs runs the risk of eliminating genuine, if sometimes odd, interactions. In this sense, it’s best to follow journalist Heidi N. Moore’s advice and refrain from deeming every guy who hits the Reply button to be a menace to society:

This essay marks one of my first filed as a full-time writer. I’ve finally quit my soul-sucking day job to pursue a career I first started working toward almost a decade ago. In the past few weeks, I’ve already noticed a serious drop-off in the amount of time I spend on Twitter. I reply less often to people — both those I know and those I don’t — and because I’m creatively and artistically occupied, I don’t feel quite the same pull toward the social media app.

Looking back on my most prolific time on Twitter, I don’t regret the cringiness I sometimes (alright, often) brought upon myself. The alienation of a white-collar, dead-end job led me to Twitter as a communicative escape, and it’s hard for me to see many RGs as anything but similar cases. This isn’t an argument for “Not All Reply Guys,” but more a call to embrace the well-meaning aspects of Twitter culture, if only to provide temporary respite from the sewage-churning awfulness.

Reply Guys (again, the non-harassing kind) embody some of the most human aspects of an otherwise inhuman and inhumane platform — we are awkward, hopeful people in search of connection, however ephemeral. Instead of scorn or ridicule, perhaps more people could embrace the ever-hopeful philosophy of genuine human interaction — if only to fleetingly improve an app we just can’t seem to quit.

Unless, of course, you’re the guy who keeps tweeting at that cute Twitter celeb, hoping she’ll follow you back. She won’t, dude. Go be productive elsewhere.

a gigantic peepshow of utter horror, but extraordinarily to the point. | www.andrewpaulwrites.com

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