Immediately after getting verified on Twitter, I started thinking about what I should write for my first blue-checked tweet. It mattered because Twitter verification proved I was a real writer, making this the inaugural tweet of a real writer.
Of course, a healthier marker of my writerly identity could have come from the years of bylines I’d accrued; or my bimonthly paycheck from the New York Times; or the fact that I spend most of the day every day … writing. But the brain worms of social currency had long ago convinced me that this little blue check was even more valuable than those things. I needed that first tweet to be perfect – smart yet hilarious yet effortless, which is, of course, a magic trick requiring tremendous effort.
After spending irreplaceable minutes of my mortal life puzzling over the task, it was solved for me: I was hacked. My first verified tweet was an unintelligible bot’s nonsensical screed about NFTs. So were the 3,000 tweets that followed. Not quite the effortless I had in mind, though I didn’t lift a finger.
If you have a social media account, there’s a possibility you’re up next for being publicly hacked. I don’t mean to panic you, just to prepare you. I’ve watched both friends and celebrities get taken out on various platforms. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that Elon Musk was hacked – on the very same app he offered billions to buy last month.
There is no refuge even in death; they came for Gilbert Gottfried’s account mere hours after his obituary was posted. Methods exist to protect yourself against this (complex passwords, two-factor authorisation) but I did both, and they – whoever they are – still got me.
Mine was the best-case-scenario version of a hacking. My hacker didn’t access my DMs, and even if they had, there was nothing salacious there to reveal. No photos were leaked. They didn’t reach my bank account, my credit cards, or my email. As a NYT employee, I had access to the best minds on the security team, who worked with Twitter to turn my account back to me in 24 hours. I could have been ruined; I was merely inconvenienced. As far as hackings go: not so bad.
But it was still bad enough. I watched in real time as my hacker replaced my photo with that of a cartoon shark head (apparently an NFT), deleted my tweets, and started spewing out thousands of their own under my name, tagging thousands of people over the next several hours in an apparent ploy to direct clicks to a certain NFT drop.
While trying to explain the experience to my 91-year-old grandmother, who’s never owned a computer, I gave this comparison: Being hacked feels like being locked out of your home while watching through the windows as someone robs it. That sounds dramatic. I still mean it. I had spent years curating this online self, this insouciant Twitter Dorie, and in a matter of minutes every little joke and observation I’d made, every link I’d shared, every public conversation I’d had with showrunners and essayists and researchers I admire – all of it was wiped clean and replaced with NFT nonsense. Yes, they were just my tweets. But they were mine.
I recognise, logically, that my internet ramblings do not matter. Compared with most media professionals (all of us theoretically “in the public eye”), I have a miniscule following. Even for those few people who do engage with my Twitter, “engaging” with tweets is the intellectual equivalent of blowing snot into a tissue – one second of warm connection followed by immediate disposal.
I know that the physical world I inhabit is more important than the virtual one: In the hours after getting hacked, when there was nothing left for me to do but wait, I watched one of my favourite dance companies perform, then shared dinner at a delicious Korean restaurant with a friend I adore. In the glow of that experience, the concerns of little words on a screen, themselves just a coded sequence of 0’s and 1’s, should have ceased to matter entirely.
But the truth is, I could barely focus on the show or the meal. I kept fixating on everything I was losing, the uncertainty of what else could be lost. Now no one on the internet would know that I was likable or smart, I worried. This is, of course, an idiotic thing to worry about while sitting next to a real friend who finds you likable and smart in real life. And like a real friend, she ordered two rounds of soju to mark the occasion, which softened the edges of my mind and helped me realise the problem: Getting hacked felt like being robbed because I’d assigned real-world value to a virtual product.
But that wasn’t totally my fault, and it wasn’t a total miscalculation. Twitter claims 330 million monthly users. It can entrap anyone, regardless of profession. For a writer, though, there is a degree to which an online persona is a career necessity. It’s how I learn about what events and stories drive the cultural narrative; it’s how I forge relationships with other creatives; it’s how I sharpen the tool of my own thinking. Especially for a writer like me who dabbles in many genres – not just the commerce journalism of my day job but also essays and screenplays – it’s been a way to connect with people outside my company Slack.
My tweets are much faster to read through than an essay or a script – a click on my Twitter page confirmed my voice and at least hinted at my comedic ability. Twitter matters. It has ruined elections and propelled careers and ruined careers and propelled elections. It has introduced me to geniuses and idiots, harassers and friends. Of course it matters.
And yet, though I’ve enjoyed creating relationships with other writers and readers online, the fact is, none of those are real relationships, because none of it is really me. My online persona is just a flattened extract, a disembodied voice polished through edits, whereas the real me speaks loud and fast and with aggressive gesticulation – something only my friends know. While a “like” strokes my ego, it does not make me feel as good as people’s laughter does. And of course, the pitch for this very essay was accepted on the basis of the ideas it contains –not my social media presence.
When I lost my Twitter account, I wasn’t mourning the death of some potential opportunity. It was that I felt like a part of me had died with the account. “How will my grandkids know that I was pithy!??” I tweeted in jest afterward, but really, I worried about it. In creating these online selves, we effectively create our own immortalities. Nothing dies on the internet, the adage goes, and in fact, not even my deleted tweets are dead, existing in perpetuity on the Wayback Machine.
But even that eternal chain of 1’s and 0’s won’t let me live forever. It won’t make me matter. Getting hacked pushed me to confront the reality of why I posted in the first place; it wasn’t just the fun of it, not just creative challenge or the job strategy. It was far more pathetic than all that: Tweeting, for me, was an attempt to matter, every like and follow another confirmation of how much I mattered. I know, of course, that shouting into the void of the internet does not make you matter, even if its echo will reverberate forever. You can be immortal but still also forgotten. When I tweeted, “How will my grandkids know that I was pithy!??,” I was framing the question wrong.
I don’t wish for you to get hacked, but the experience rattled my soul and made me reconsider how I use the internet, a reckoning that was frankly overdue. I still think Twitter is a powerful tool for a writer, perhaps even for a normal person. But I am trying to let go of its power to verify my worth. I still get a little satisfaction whenever a post gets attention, but in the weeks since the hack, I’ve spent less time using the app, and less energy too.
Even if it survives until then, I realise, my digital footprint will not matter in 100 years. It barely matters today. My grandkids will have to know I’m funny just by knowing me, and I guess so will I.
This piece was originally published on Future Tense, a partnership between Slate magazine, Arizona State University, and New America.