In aiming for these, people often miss the mark, one reason the platform hosts so much recklessness, attention-seeking and off-target humour. Yet though tweets may be appraised like speech, they are punished like writing. Posts may seem to disappear in an endlessly flowing river, but unless they are deleted they live on indefinitely. A public figure’s stupid tweets are more likely than most to be screen-captured by others, so that even deletion won’t help (and may suggest a guilty conscience). In the days after Ms McCammond’s contrite withdrawal, several of her critics at Teen Vogue made their Twitter accounts private. One turned out to have used a racial epithet to jovially address a (white) friend in 2009.
How will society adjust to this new speech-text hybrid? One theory is that only the most conformist or risk-averse will succeed in a sort of woke dystopia; the rest will be vulnerable to the discovery of an embarrassing tweet in an ever-growing back catalogue. A second possible outcome is safety in numbers. So many people (including path-breaking members of minority groups) will be deemed to have transgressed that skeletons in closets come to be regarded as inevitable. In this scenario, society accepts that more or less everyone has said regrettable things, and that, at least in some cases, tweeting them was merely a dangerous category mistake.
Alas, that consensus seems a long way off. Hence the third possibility: that people will learn to keep their risky jokes offline, understanding that even if they feel like colloquial remarks, offensive comments written in black and white can be recalled and judged that way. This would make Twitter a lot duller. Spontaneity is its appeal. But the more careers that are derailed, the more parents will urge children to mind their language online, just as they have long warned them to be careful with strangers.
Human speech has been around for at least tens of thousands of years, writing for about five millennia. Twitter had its 15th birthday on March 21st. It may be wisest to err on the side of boring until norms settle down.