The Strange Appeal of Twitter Meltdowns

Hugo Schwyzer. Photo: FacebookThe highly publicized Twitter meltdown of a Pasadena City College professor, Hugo Schwyzer, has been dramatically underscoring the pitfalls of oversharing on social media this week.

More on Shine: Do You Overshare? 7 Social Media Mistakes You May Be Making

The professor, who spent years making a name for himself in the media as an expert on subjects such as feminism, self-image, sexual harassment and the “myth of male weakness,” spent a full hour posting more than 100 tweets on Friday. It was a shockingly confessional stream of self-flagellation, in which he apologizes for being “morally fraudulent” and “a monstrous hypocrite,” and admits to having an affair with a 23-year-old and sexting with a 27-year-old—in the same week that an article he wrote criticizing age-inappropriate relationships was published in the Atlantic.

"I cheated on my wife and pretended to be reformed," he tweeted on August 9. "I appropriated the language of redemption, I knew which buttons to push, I used sex and charm and whiteness and it usually worked."

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Schwyzer noted that he suffers from a combination of “bipolar disease with psychotic features” and alcoholism. "Yes I'm on a manic episode and feeling crazed," he tweeted.

More on Yahoo!: Lee Westwood Apologizes for Post-PGA Twitter Rant

“One of the reasons I did that Twitter feed is that I want the truth to come out, all the truth, so I can scorch the earth,” he told the Daily Beast on Monday. “So that if I do rebuild, I don’t rebuild on any false foundation.” Since posting his final tweet Monday afternoon, he’s since put his Twitter account into the hands of a friend and announced he’ll be taking a medical leave.

The meltdown seemed to show us the professor, who has been no stranger to criticism and controversy over the years, as he hit bottom.

But it’s the just latest—if perhaps most spectacular—example of individuals, both famous and unknown, unraveling publicly on social media.

Amanda Bynes via TwitterIn just the past couple of months, we’ve watched New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner suffer political fallout from his sexting scandal and we've seen actress Amanda Bynes appear to psychologically unravel on the Twitter stage. And Alec Baldwin, offended that a journalist accused his wife of tweeting during James Gandolfini’s funeral in June, fired back on Twitter (naturally) with a homophobic, swear-laden rant against Daily Mail reporter George Stark.

On Monday, PGA golfer Lee Westwood used Twitter to unleash a three-hour rant against critical fans, calling them “numbskulls,” “trolls,” “cowards” and “failures” before issuing a humble apology. Another hot-tempered celebrity athlete, martial-arts champ Ronda Rousey, took to Twitter repeatedly after public criticism of her consideration of early retirement. “F*** all you hating Twitter b****es, have a great time spending the rest of your day seething over my options and choices,” she wrote. 

So what gives? Sound judgment, for one. But Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Boston and professor of media psychology, warns against lumping every Twitter rant and meltdown together into one full-blown sociological crisis.

“[Hugo Schwyzer] has bipolar disorder, so having a meltdown is something that comes with that,” she told Yahoo! Shine, adding that, in the case of Anthony Weiner, there’s a sexual compulsion involved. “Both of these guys have pathologies, and we can see them because of Twitter, but it’s not Twitter. It’s the guys.” So while Twitter makes such breakdowns visible in a way they hadn’t been before, the people having them “would’ve found another way to actualize their compulsions.”

The broader problem of the Twitter over-share, Rutledge explained, is that “People have taken to these new tools without an understanding of the nature of a broadcast culture—without realizing that the Internet is permanent and searchable.” We wouldn’t give someone the keys to a car without teaching them how to drive, she said, but with social media, “We don’t talk about the implications, but are then surprised when people don’t understand them.”

Private citizen and UK jam maker Sarah Greep, for example, seemed a bit stunned and defensive after people criticized her decision to tweet, rather than place a phone call, seeking rescue from a church she’d been accidentally locked into over the weekend.

But social media compels folks to spill their guts in ways that can seem cathartic. “People do have an inclination to share—and Twitter, specifically, feels more real to them than a lot of the others, because it’s immediate, and a genuinely human expression in the moment,” Rutledge said. “There’s no mediation, so like with the Charlie Sheen meltdown, you knew he wasn’t being handled, and celebrities are used to being handled.”

Sometimes, that immediacy and lack of filter can have compelling, positive results, she noted—such as when NPR host Scott Simon tweeted in real time about his mother’s death. “He’s used to sharing publicly, so there’s a different dynamic there,” Rutledge noted, “but it was very poignant because it was so in-the-moment.”

Of course for those who exemplify the not-so-positive side of tweeting, the poignancy can be quickly lost in context. As Schwyzer noted in his own Twitter rant, “Being microinfamous sucks.”