If the pen is mightier than the sword, then social media disses are sometimes the equivalent of cluster bombs that can take out targets as soon as they’re dropped. With 2015 almost over, so is my love affair with Twitter, Facebook and the culture of Internet courage. Online, we sometimes feel yoked enough to shout anything at anyone as if there are no real-world repercussions.
There are always repercussions. While Twitter makes it possible for people to get news faster and be heard—often a good thing—it also unleashes a torrent of impulsive commentary without context, which can lead to all kinds of unintended pain and suffering. I had several of those experiences this year.
My personal goal for 2015 was to write more. After working for many years as a music journalist, I’m now an arts education and community advocate. But the craft of writing is hard to shake—and writing about artists you believe in is its own kind of advocacy. Typically record reviews are a safe place to start.
In February my name became a hashtag after THEESatisfaction’s Catherine Harris-White took umbrage with my review of their most recent album in this magazine. (I loved the album’s lyrics, believed in its powerful black aesthetic and respect its contributors. But I grew bored with its production and had to be honest.) In a series of angry Tweets that only got angrier, #JonathanCunningham offered a list of things I’m not, such as A) from the Town, B) welcome around here and C) a mofo who knows anything. Thousands of people saw my name dragged through the Internet streets before Harris-White deleted the tweets.
It hurt, but the hurt quickly turned to compassion. This sort of thing is not unusual—it’s a dynamic that unfolds online all the time. Still, what we say on social media in the heat of the moment often damages relationships in real life. Harris-White and I were previously distant comrades in the black arts scene but we haven’t spoken since.
In August, when Black Lives Matters activists commandeered the stage at a Bernie Sanders rally at Westlake Park, I took to Twitter and insinuated that the activists, Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, might’ve beenundercover police. My tweets were daft, knee-jerk reactions rooted in a deep distrust for COINTELPRO and the real, routine practice of undercover agents infiltrating black socialist movements. (In the months leading up to the event, Johnson and Willaford had emerged seemingly out of nowhere and created friction in some organizing circles.)
Still—thinking they could be undercovers infiltrating the BLM movement and blasting the idea via the Internet are two vastly different things. The latter was entirely irresponsible and wrong. It validated their detractors, potentially putting their lives at risk. To call it a personal low point is an understatement. Realizing the magnitude of my error, I stopped tweeting entirely.
Sometimes a quick thought on social media lands with more force than intended. Particularly online, careless speech isn’t free. There’s a price. I’m sorry.
Leaving Twitter behind, I figured my days of Twitter beefs were over. That fantasy ended in early September, when I walked into Fats Chicken & Waffles in the Central District.
Fats is housed in the old Catfish Corner location, diagonal to the former longtime home of The Facts black newspaper, which is now a pet grooming shop. Venturing in on a Friday night, I saw Fats’ owner, Marcus Lalario, standing inside, gave him some dap…and then things went sideways. Lalario walked me outside, asked if I was Jonathan who writes for City Arts and then heatedly cursed me out, accusing me of talking shit on Twitter.
Mystified, I denied it. We stood on the corner, beneath the mural of MLK, while Lalario told me all the good he was doing for the community, including a recent touch-up of the mural. “That’s great,” I said, “but what does this have to do with me?” We walked back toward the restaurant while customers and the staff observed the tense moment. Lalario went inside and slammed the door in my face.
A day later, while watching Raz Simone perform at Bumbershoot, I relayed the story to Jonathan Zwickel, an editor for this magazine. Together we scrolled through months of tweets, and there it was: a comment thread from June 26 where Zwickel asked if anyone thought it was weird that Lalario, a white business owner, opened up a soul food restaurant in a formerly black-owned soul food joint. The epic dis I expected to rediscover was benign—and written by someone else.
After learning of his error, Lalario called to apologize and offered to buy me dinner. I hear general manager Erika “Kylea” White is pouring herself into the business to make everything authentic, so I’m sure the food’s delicious. But I can’t say I’ll ever cross the threshold of that establishment again.
Today we have more methods of communication than ever at our disposal but we’re generally communicating worse because of it. Too much of our humanity gets lost when reduced to 140 characters.