The parallel parking job that ignited the internet
As illustrated on Moskowitz’s Twitter.
Photo: Courtesy of PE Moskowitz
When I was a kid growing up in Lower Manhattan, my dad always told us, “The parking lot gods are on our side. Going around the blocks around our apartment after running an errand, he never failed to find a spot – a skill he passed on to me. A friend once described my ability to parallel park in New York as “sexy” and I agree: it’s sexy, like being able to handle a power tool. That’s why, a few weeks ago, when I managed to put my car in the smallest place I had ever tried, I felt a sense of pride. So I job a photo of my parked car on Twitter, where I have over 25,000 followers, with the obviously hyperbolic caption “don’t brag but deserve a Nobel Prize for this”. Then I put my phone away.
Within hours, the post had accumulated dozens of quote tweets. One person told me that I was an “objectively bad person” for my parking job. I thought it was funny. So I took a screenshot and job with another obviously hyperbolic caption: “I’m canceled for being good at parallel parking.” This tweet, incredibly, now has 153,100 likes and over 4,800 retweets. According to Twitter analytics, around 10 million people saw it and around 4,000 of them decided to respond. Some have called me a shitty or clever human being; others told me they would lock my car or blow my tires. Several threatened to fight me. Some just said I was lying – someone created a SAT style geometric diagram to prove, based on the dimensions and angles seen in the photo, that my parking job was mathematically impossible.
I was stunned. In the decade I have been on Twitter, I have repeatedly been wracked by the anonymous internet mobs: once when I tweeted that ADHD (which I was diagnosed with) was a symptom of late capitalism, and another time when I tweeted that gender transition should be like converting to Judaism, where you have to be approved by some authority (I’m trans and Jewish and was kidding too). Both of these posts sparked retweets calling me horrible names and DMs containing death threats, but the outrage, if not justified by its magnitude, was at least readable: I had posted a controversial opinion, and the people there reacted. In the case of my parallel parking job, however, I was stumped. How could such a mundane tweet spark such anger? So I asked a few friends who were very connected and also captivated by the response to my tweets to help me decipher what was going on.
“The excuse for which they were allowed to come to you was so nonexistent,” writer Charlotte Shane said. “That’s why I was so thrilled about it, even though I was so horrified.”
One obvious explanation for the incident, Shane said, is that social media sites are being set up to stir up outrage. “It was put on our feeds for a reason,” she said. “Twitter was like, ‘You’re going to waste your whole weekend tweeting garbage to someone you’ve never met.’ What Twitter wants is for us all to look at a tweet that drives us so crazy we’re going to spend all day tweeting about it. It’s the dream scenario for the company.
Before the internet, if someone posted a flyer on a streetlight advertising a book club to discuss a book you didn’t want to read, you probably just wouldn’t have participated. What would be the goal? But today, with the most scandalous or inflammatory posts reaching the top of our feeds, even if we don’t care about them, we’re all in each other’s book clubs – forced to see things that we dislike and driven by an algorithm to interact with them.
There’s an academic name for this attributed to tech researcher Danah Boyd: Context Collapse, in which disparate audiences who may not want to be in the same place together IRL are forced by social media algorithms to share a space. virtual. And as tech writer Charlie Warzel pointed out, the more that happens, the angrier and more cynical people seem to become. Our corners of the Internet continue to be infiltrated by people we don’t know, ideas we don’t like; as a defense mechanism, we push back. A thousand book clubs compete for floor space in the world’s worst convention center.
The collapse of the context may explain the extent of anger my parking job elicited, but it didn’t explain the anger itself. So I contacted about twenty people who had come to learn more.
Zac, a 23-year-old from Pennsylvania with 224 followers who suggested I should be in jail for my parking job, told me he was on purpose hyperbolic and that the only target audience was his friends. “[It] Wouldn’t be so funny to say to yourself, “Man, this is awesome, but I’m worried about other cars!” Zac texted me. “To say that someone should go to jail for a job in a park is clearly absurd and it’s something my followers have taken a kick out of.”
As it turns out, Zac has a linguistics degree as well, so he broke it down further. “The purpose of my tweet wasn’t to try and scold. It was for entertainment,” he said. “And that’s why I think a lot of communication crashes happen online. The only function of language on Twitter is different (communication versus entertainment).
Several other people I contacted saw me as emblematic of a social problem: selfishness and lack of respect for others. “You parked your car to meet your short-term needs,” one user told me. “These cars in front and behind can no longer get out. Several dozen tweets told me I was capable; either I didn’t leave enough room for a person to use a ramp to get into their car, or I didn’t think some disabled people would have a hard time getting out of such a tight space. I did not disagree with the spirit of this argument. The barriers people with disabilities face in getting around a city, whether by car or public transit, are a systemic problem, one that New York City often fails to address. But in this case, it was not Mayor de Blasio or Governor Cuomo who were taken to task by this problem. It was me.
“Millennials are mean,” said Emily Gorcenski, data scientist and activist. “We are wicked because we were raised to live in a world that does not exist, and it does not exist because the people who raised us for this world made sure that it does not exist. And we deal with our anger through all kinds of channels, from sarcasm to outright hatred and rage. But because there is no organized forum for this anger, it can be triggered at random and on the nearest target. Often it is directed to people with perceived and proximal power: You have more followers than I do, you have a blue check, your tweet is viral – so you need to be held accountable. (“Oppress small accounts with my big account,” as writer and big Twitter account Harron Walker joked.)
I was the butt of anger that day, but the following week I saw thousands of bird-loving people on Twitter yelling at cat lovers for their supposed complicity in bird deaths. (“We also found new, creative ways to be mean,” Gorcenski observed.)
Gorcenski’s theory explains many of the messages I received: people were angry, and I was the easiest way to express that anger. “I hate narcissists more than anything else, probably because I was raised by a clever narcissist,” a 40-year-old Twitter user told me. “Not only did I find your parking lot in this incredibly selfish way, but also the ‘can’t be ashamed’ attitude convinced me that you must be a smart narcissist.” I asked him if he regretted being so angry with me, knowing that I had seen his tweet. No, he said. It was deserved.
Finally, I asked the user who called me an “objectively bad person” to comment. He said the same thing as the others: it was mostly a joke. And then he pointed out something I hadn’t considered. I had been the one who took a screenshot of his tweet, and it was the tweet that became megaviral. I had a lot more followers than him, and I had blown him up to entertain them. So how was I different from the trolls who chased me?
He brought me there.