Lost co-creator and prominent screen-writer Damon Lindelof has been a long-time and unusually accessible Twitter user — or he was, until this afternoon, when his account was deleted. It’s practically mandatory for people in the entertainment industry to have Twitter accounts today, but Lindelof’s use of the social media service combined a particular level of fame and accessibility. Rather than simply using Twitter as a broadcasting tool, where it’s understood that the star the account represents is only rarely tweeting under their own name, talking only to other celebrities, or scrappily attempting to rally support from a small following for a project or a Kickstarter, Lindelof was an exceptionally powerful and famous creator who regularly talked directly to everyday fans.
It was a kind of conversation that could be incredibly gratifying for viewers, for whom Twitter radically lowered the barriers that traditionally separated fans from creators and actors. But as much as Twitter can be an affirmation engine for artists, putting them in contact with hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people who are eager to shower them with praise, it’s not as if people in the entertainment industry — or any of the rest of us — can turn that engine on only when the feedback is positive, and turn it off when things get ugly. Lindelof, in particular, had to deal with a persistent strain of inquiry and complaint about the series finale of Lost, something he wrote about in a lengthy meditation published after the finale of Breaking Bad.
I don’t begrudge anyone the decision that a particular strain of social media is not for them. I’m entirely sympathetic to liberal use of the block and mute functions on Twitter, to heavily moderated comments sections, to extremely restrictive privacy settings on Facebook, and to the decision that a space simply may not be for you at all. Game of Thrones story editor Bryan Cogman, who didn’t have the same volume of followers as Lindelof, left Twitter after spending all of his time on the service responding to continuity and casting questions, rather than talking to people about other subjects. It’s nice to want to make yourself accessible, but if you’re swamped by queries you feel like you’ve already answered before, or stuck responding to people who won’t be satisfied with anything you have to say, that defeats the point of offering up your time in the first place.
But the emotional health of creators and actors isn’t the only reason that Twitter and social media may be risky for entertainment industry figures. Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter’s a regular Twitter user, and uses the service in a raw, personal way that’s helped build the bond between him and his most dedicated fan, but that’s also created an image that contradicts with the more thoughtful, substantive way he wants to be seen at events like the Television Critics Association press tour. Some of his attacks on the critic class as a whole — he has a tendency to refer to working television critics with an obscene term for women’s anatomy that I won’t reprint here — are a reaction to a sense that Sons, a pulpy show about working-class characters, hasn’t gotten the critical attention and awards recognition he believes it deserves. And sometimes the attacks are more personal, as last week when Sutter went after Zack Handlen, the AV Club’s designated reviewer for the show, who, like me, has often appreciated Sons of Anarchy, but been frustrated by some of the present season.
It’s true that those of us who write criticism for a living should be able to take some of what we dish out — and ought to be better than most at discerning the difference between personal lashing out and a substantive critique. But Tweeting like Sutter’s is potentially counterproductive for his show, and creates a lightly hostile work environment for those of us who have to encounter him in person. I know critics who have refrained from getting caught up on Sons of Anarchy in part because they’re turned out by Sutter’s public performances. And while Sutter might preemptively dismiss them as the kinds of wusses who wouldn’t appreciate his blood-and-bikes opera, he’s sacrificing perceptive and high-profile readings of his show that might help credential it with new audiences. Similarly, Sutter’s quite good at commanding a stage at the Television Critics Association press tour, coming across as thoughtful and introspective. But the visible contradiction in how he presents himself there, and how he treats our colleagues online, can be disconcerting, and may have a long-term effect on the dynamic between Sutter and the critics and trade reporters who cover him.
Maybe Sutter’s fine with that, and after his hiatus from and return to Twitter, has made his peace with the equilibrium he’s achieved there. Maybe Lindelof’s departure from Twitter will give him time to think of a way to use the service that might work for him. But both Sutter’s insults and Lindelof’s departure are a reminder that a service like Twitter operates the same way for every user, no matter the scale. And opening up a channel isn’t the same thing as having a conversation.